The Jallianwala Bagh Stain
Archbishop of Canterbury’s act of repentance speaks to his larger project of interfaith reconciliation
The dramatic image flashed across the world. The Archbishop of Canterbury, the head of the Protestant church in England and spiritual leader of the global community of 85 million Anglican Christians, lay prostrate in front of the memorial to the victims massacred a century ago by troops of the British Indian army in Amritsar. It was, as he intended, a visible symbol of repentance for an action that since 1919 has left a stain on Britain’s relations with India.
It was not a formal apology. The most revered Justin Welby said that he was a religious and not a political leader, and therefore could not speak for Britain or its government. But he condemned the shootings as a crime and a sin, and said he was “personally very sorry for this terrible atrocity”. He felt a “deep sense of shame” when visiting the Jallianwala Bagh park.
His prostration, in the searing heat, was compared by many to the gesture of repentance by Willy Brandt, the West German chancellor, who spontaneously fell to his knees in 1970 in front of the former Jewish ghetto in Warsaw when he offered an apology for the Nazi atrocities committed there during the Second World War.
Like Brandt, Welby’s action has sparked controversy in his home country. How could a gesture atone for history? Why should he not also atone for the many other terrible actions committed not only in India but also elsewhere by the British and many others who have killed innocent civilians? Critics in Britain said he was simply “virtue signalling”, and was not entitled to express the judgement of humanity more than three generations later.
That was not the point. Since becoming Archbishop in 2013, Welby has made reconciliation and tolerance, between faiths and among former enemies, the watchwords of his time in office. He believes the second is impossible without the first. And he came to India for 12 days, the longest overseas tour he has yet undertaken, because he believes that India holds the key to better relations between the great world faiths, since many of them are based in India or have strong roots there. India has lived with religious diversity for more than a thousand years, and since Independence has had a Constitution that specifically upholds the freedom of worship for the country’s religious minorities.
That freedom has recently come under strain. India has seen the growth of religious nationalism, the ideology behind the ruling BJP party, and this has heightened tensions between the Hindu majority and India’s large Muslim minority. Recent actions in Kashmir and in Assam have been seen by some as discrimination against minority faiths. And in recent years these tensions have spilled over in sporadic violent attacks on isolated Christian communities across the country.
Welby knew that any call by a visiting outsider for greater protection for India’s Christians – some of them, especially in Kerala, hundreds of years older than Christianity in Europe – would be resented and would be counter-productive. Instead, he underlined the importance of Article 25 of the Constitution, and pointedly expressed the hope that that India’s commitment to religious freedom would be vigorously enforced by local authorities at local level.
He went to India, he said before he began his visit, to learn how mutual respect and tolerance between faiths could be translated into common actions to counter the scourge increasingly affecting all faiths today: the growth of extremism, religious fanaticism and terrorism
He went to India, he said before he began his visit, to learn how mutual respect and tolerance between faiths could be translated into common actions to counter the scourge increasingly affecting all faiths today: the growth of extremism, religious fanaticism and terrorism. That is clear across the world – in the Middle East especially, but also in Sri Lanka, where he made a two-day visit before going to India, in Africa and in Europe, where Muslim minorities face growing Islamophobia among Christians. Reconciliation is not possible, he believes, unless there is acknowledgment of past failings by political and religious leaders.
But for him reconciliation means more than simply gathering for polite conversations with other spiritual leaders. He called this “tea and cakes” reconciliation, which was shallow and did not tackle the roots of intolerance. Instead, faiths should work wholeheartedly together to assert their values and the common humanity that lies at the heart of all their doctrines.
He did not achieve any dramatic breakthrough in his meetings with Hindu, Muslim, Sikh and leaders of Christians from other denominations in India. But he insisted that he also came to India to learn how Christian communities, which account for no more than 3% of India’s population, were attempting to build bridges to the wider community.
In the time of British rule, dozens of prestigious schools were founded by Christians to educate both girls and boys from largely well-to-do Indian families. These still exist and exert a lifelong influence on the pupils from other faiths, the majority, who attend them. But the two indigenous Anglican churches, the Church of South India and the Church of North India, are now deliberately focusing on the marginalised and the downtrodden. While in Kolkata, Welby visited a centre that is pioneering efforts, in conjunction with NGOs and overseas aid agencies, to stop human trafficking – a serious problem in poor border areas, where girls are lured into prostitution or forced marriage and boys are kidnapped for use as indentured labour or for the criminal harvesting of bodily organs.
If India can mobilise such social engagement by all faiths, working together, the country could set an example to the world. Such an example would have a powerful influence in Britain and Europe, now multicultural communities, where faith is increasingly divisive instead of reconciling.
To achieve that, however, Britain and India had to acknowledge each other’s fraught common history. And that called for a heartfelt and symbolic gesture from Britain’s most senior religious leader if the stain of Amritsar is to be erased.