Archbishop Justin Welby at Jallianwala Bagh

Sep 12, 2019 by

by Vinay Samuel and Chris Sugden:

The London Times has reported “that the Archbishop of Canterbury has expressed his “profound regret and shame” for the massacre of more than 400 unarmed Indian civilians by British Indian army troops a century ago.

“Prostrating himself before a memorial to those shot in the Jallianwala Bagh walled garden in Amritsar, the Most Rev Justin Welby said that the shootings were a crime and a sin.

“The action was ordered in 1919 by General Reginald Dyer in response to demonstrations against the arrest of two leaders, one Hindu and one Muslim. Determined to “punish the Indians”, Dyer’s troops blocked the narrow entrance to the garden and without warning fired 1,650 rounds into the crowd, aiming at the five exits to prevent anyone escaping. More than 1,000 people, including women and children, were seriously wounded, with many left to die as a curfew prevented anyone from going to help the injured.

The archbishop added: “I have no status to apologise on behalf of the UK, its government or its history. But I am personally very sorry for this terrible atrocity. It is one of a number of deep stains on British history.”

The archbishop did penance on the final day of an exhaustive 12-day tour of India, his longest overseas visit. His words echoed the regret voiced by the Queen during her state visit in 1997 and the statement in parliament by Theresa May in April, just before the centenary of the massacre.

The archbishop went further, however: “I recognise the sins of my British colonial history, the ideology that has too often subjugated and dehumanised other races and cultures.” Christ called on us, he added, “to turn away from sin — not just repenting old ways but to live in a new way that sought the kingdom of God”.

International seminar

An international seminar took place the day following the Archbishop’s visit with theologians and church leaders from a number of countries including seven former British colonies in Asia and Africa.

The context of the massacre and its aftermath were set out. Sikh soldiers from the Punjab made up a significant part of the British Army in the First World War, fighting in the trenches of Europe a war for another country. On their return home they see soldiers from that same army shoot their own fellow citizens and family members.  The colonial power they had served now killed their own people. This massacre turned many of the educated Indian elite against the colonial power and was the trigger for the Indian independence movement.

The British Parliament itself took action, removed General Dyer from his command and forcibly retired him from the army. Winston Churchill called it “a monstrous event” and said: “We have to make it absolutely clear, some way or another, that this is not the British way of doing business.”

Thus the tragedy was addressed by the English Parliament and played a significant role in the development of the movement for Indian independence. It was noted that Jallianwala Bagh was not an isolated incident in the history of colonialism. Just as Jallianwala Bagh was an important trigger for the Indian Independence Movement, a similar atrocity took place in Cork, Ireland in 1920 at the beginning of the movement for Irish Independence.


The Bishop of Amritsar who hosted the Archbishop reported a mixed response to the Archbishop’s action in India. While many were positive about the Archbishop’s action, the people of the Punjab still felt it came short of their continued pressure on the British Government to apologise.  There has been no response or commentary from the Hindu nationalist party, the BJP.

The Archbishop stressed that he was acting in a purely personal capacity and was doing it for himself. His words and actions would have been unexceptionable in that capacity. But he was visiting India not as a private citizen but as a religious leader of a worldwide Christian community. He is also a member of the British Parliament. He was dressed in his purple cassock. He gave a statement to the press after his visit. His prostration was captured by waiting cameramen. This raises the question of the identity of a person. Can any person be divorced in their actions from the community of which they are a part? Can a religious leader’s publicly expressed spiritual activities ever be ‘just for oneself’?

So for which community was the Archbishop speaking? The Christian community in India who were his hosts? This could be very dangerous for them. For he has provided photographic evidence of a Christian leader appearing to take some responsibility for the ‘massacre’. This will reinforce in those opposed to Christian faith in India the idea that Christians were in some way linked with the perpetrators of the events of that day, and therefore can be justly targeted for their collusion then and now with the former colonial powers.

And did Archbishop Welby consult his hosts beforehand about his prostration? The seminar was given to understand that he did not. So what is now being communicated? That a member of a race and community that once held political and economic power over India now puts himself in a forward position on a very sensitive matter without consulting his hosts. What are onlookers supposed to take from this: that an international religious leader can take his own initiative in a host country on matters which have significant implications for his hosts. Indian Christians and their leaders are perfectly capable of making their own response to this and other situations.

The Archbishop said he was personally very sorry.  Were Indian Christians asking for forgiveness through his words and actions?  But Indian Christians played no part in the massacre. Was he representing the Church of England? They were not involved either. Was he speaking for England? But the British Government at the time took decisive action in stripping Dyer of his command and censuring him.

A case was put forward that Archbishop Welby’s actions would bring a better understanding of Christians. Indeed the question can be asked whether other religious traditions have resources to provide for repentance and forgiveness. Have the upper castes of  India, who oppressed the ‘outcaste’ Dalits for centuries ever said sorry or asked forgiveness?  Have the descendants of the Persian ruler who invaded India in 1739 sacked the Mughal capital Delhi massacred according the most conservative estimate over 100,000 men women and children, took tons of jewelry   including the Kohinoor diamond  ever considered apologizing?

So we can only conclude that the Archbishop was signaling the sort of person he is: an agent of reconciliation.  And this was to the exclusion of other considerations. This was a gesture – virtue-signalling on a grand scale.

Read also:  Welby should stand up for Christians persecuted by India by Zareer Masani, The Times (from Virtueonline)

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