April 13

It’s a day of anniversaries.

For one thing, it’s Matt Faherty’s birthday. Happy birthday, Matt!  His birthday was April 12. Whoops.

It’s also the late Christopher Hitchens’s birthday. Happy birthday, Christopher, wherever you are.

I got to know Hitchens during the 2000s, and we corresponded for a few years by email. Every year around this time, we used to joke about the fact that his birthday happened to fall on the anniversary of the Jalianwala Bagh Massacre of 1919.

Not that it was all that humorous a topic. Here it is, as depicted in the film “Gandhi.”

My grandfather–my father’s father–was there. Obviously, he escaped, or I couldn’t sit here and tell you about it. I never met him (he died in Pakistan when I was a small child), so I can’t pretend to have some powerful personal bond with him, or via him, with the event. But I’ve heard the family lore about him, and about 1919 (and 1947), so that’s the connection.

My biggest fear after 9/11 and our wars in Afghanistan and Iraq was that some day we’d repeat some American equivalent of Amritsar somewhere, and that I’d have to live as the citizen of a country stained with the blood of innocents like the ones at Jalianwala Bagh. Have we escaped that fate? Well, I can’t think of a literal equivalent of the Amritsar Massacre since My Lai, but then, browsing my way through the Senate’s Torture Report, I can’t say we’ve entirely escaped the Amritsar Syndrome, either.

David Cameron famously (or notoriously) refused to issue an apology for the massacre. It’s wrong, he said (in 2013), “to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologise for.” I have mixed feelings about the statement, but in truth, he has a point: it’s one thing to acknowledge, but another thing to apologize for, an event nearly a century in the past.

As he prepared to leave Amritsar, Cameron explained why he had decided against issuing an apology. “In my view,” he said, “we are dealing with something here that happened a good 40 years before I was even born, and which Winston Churchill described as ‘monstrous’ at the time and the British government rightly condemned at the time. So I don’t think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologise for.

“I think the right thing is to acknowledge what happened, to recall what happened, to show respect and understanding for what happened.

“That is why the words I used are right: to pay respect to those who lost their lives, to remember what happened, to learn the lessons, to reflect on the fact that those who were responsible were rightly criticised at the time, to learn from the bad and to cherish the good.”

The last word, however, goes to the birthday boy–the older one, I mean. Here’s a passage from Christopher Hitchens’s “A Sense of Mission,” an appreciation of The Raj Quartet (in fact, the appreciation that induced me to read The Raj Quartet, and make it one of my favorite works of literature, alongside A Passage to India). He’s referring simultaneously to the Indian Mutiny of 1857 and the Amritsar Massacre:

It’s not too much to say that these two symbols form the counterpoint of The Raj Quartet. On the one hand is fear–in part a guilty fear–of treachery, mutiny, and insurrection; of burning and pillage in which even one’s own servants cannot be trusted. On the other is the fear of having to break that trust oneself; of casting aside the pretense of consent and paternalism and ruling by terror and force. The persistence of these complementary nightmares says a good deal about the imperial frame of mind (Prepared for the Worst, p. 219).

“The imperial frame of mind”: I’d like to think that it’s all essentially irrelevant to us. In any case, when I think of the Jalianwala Bagh Massacre, as I do each year, I’m reminded of why I’d like to keep it so–or come to that, make it so.

Postscript: This article about Blackwater in Iraq almost got me to rethink my claim about our not repeating Amritsar. [Added later: I’d forgotten about Haditha when I wrote this. Here’s material on Haditha from Democracy Now, and an interesting but overly sanguine article from The Atlantic. The author of the second piece somewhat ingenuously writes, “In a liberal democracy…we put a very high burden on the state in taking away the liberty of a citizen accused of a crime.” Well, we ought to, and would like to think that we do. But it’s a stretch to assert that we do. Civil asset forfeiture is the most obvious counter-example, but the whole of the drug war provides another.]

Postscript 2: Horrifyingly worth reading, from the Hindustan Times: excerpts of Dyer’s testimony before the Hunter Commission.

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