David Cameron returned home from India Thursday to a mixed reaction following his decision not to issue a formal apology during a visit to the site of a 1919 massacre where hundreds were killed by British forces.
While the British prime minister on Wednesday described the killings of at least 380 men, women, and children in the holy Sikh city of Amritsar as "a shameful event in British history," he declined to go further, upsetting relatives of the Amritsar dead and drawing criticism from the UK’s own sizable Sikh community, the largest outside of India.
But while the British media made much of the reaction, some experts say the practical impact of his decision to avoid an official mea culpa will be negligible, at least in this instance – though apologies can still make a difference.
Cameron defended his avoidance of an official mea culpa, saying, "I don't think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things that we should apologize for”: a position consistent with his past chiding of Britain’s last two Labour prime ministers for their perceived readiness to apologize for the misdeeds of Britain’s colonial past.
Rudra Chaudhuri of King’s College London, an expert on Indian defense and foreign policy, suggest that the perceived wrongs of the British Empire today don't loom as large elsewhere. “Colonial factors are largely overemphasized in the West whereas in India this controversy has been a limited one.”
The Amritsar controversy, he says, would have zero impact on Britain’s attempts to enhance its relations with the Indian government, including last-gasp attempts to snatch back from France an $11 billion contract to sell fighter jets to Delhi. “In India today, it’s much more a case of some realpolitik questions being in consideration, rather than slightly mesmerized ideas of a colonial past. The Indian government is likely to deal with Britain as they would with any other country.”
Dr. Chaudhuri says that Cameron's series of choreographed appearances, including the Amritsar visit, are more about building the British profile at India's state level – where French and German companies have been busy bagging contracts.
Apologies and Northern Ireland
Nevertheless, Michael Cunningham, senior lecturer in politics at the University of Wolverhampton and an expert on the modern politics of apologies, stresses that such declarations by national leaders have played an important role in improving relations.
Mr. Cunningham cites Tony Blair’s 1997 statement on the 150th anniversary of the Irish potato famine – where he said that such a “dreadful event” must not be forgotten. His words were mostly well received in Ireland, and contributed to the reconciliation in what was then the early years of the Northern Ireland peace process.
Indeed, despite his chiding of Blair and Gordon Brown’s attitude towards Britain’s colonial past, Cameron also made an apology regarded as bolstering the peace process.
In 2010, he issued a statement regarding the 1972 killings by British soldiers of thirteen civilians in the city of Derry. “What happened was both unjustified and unjustifiable. It was wrong,” he told parliament, in a well received apology for what is known as “Bloody Sunday.”
So why not say sorry in a similar way for Amritsar?
According to Cunningham, there are several factors, including Cameron’s conservative worldview of the British empire as being essentially benign as well as the likely backlash from his party if he were to depart from this position.
But an important difference for Cameron, says Cunningham, is that he was prime minister when a marathon inquiry proved that the casualties in Derry posed no threat to British troops – thereby necessitating his response.
“Cameron’s perspective would be that he bore a responsibility for making the Bloody Sunday apology in a way that he did not for Amritsar,” Cunningham adds. “He would say it might be hypocritical for him to apologize for something that happened so long ago and had nothing to with him or his present government.”
A political tool?
Elsewhere, trade and contemporary geopolitical interests have been clearly been factors in the context of apologies by other countries.
A desire to improve trade and political ties with Asian neighbors, particularly South Korea, have also been behind successive Japanese expressions of regret for the conduct of its troops before and during World War II – although Cunningham identifies the Japanese case as an example of where apologies don’t seem to work, and perhaps even do more harm than good.
“One argument is that they have apologized too often and that they have always been a bit too qualified. Also, they have provoked backlashes of sorts at home in Japan.” he says.
Even so, alongside factors such as coercion or the desire to further strategic interests, Cunningham suggests that another factor can sometimes be overlooked when political leaders utter that humble little five-letter word on behalf of the nation.
“It might often be because they are genuinely felt sorry for events in the past,” he says.