The Jal­lian­wala Bagh Stain

Arch­bishop of Canterbury’s act of re­pen­tance speaks to his larger project of in­ter­faith rec­on­cil­i­a­tion

The Times of India (New Delhi edition) - - An Epiphany Of Ideas - Michael Binyon

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from India

© PressReader. All rights reserved.