During Black History Month, take some time to learn from the injustices of the past

I first realised that people from different ethnic groups could have very different attitudes to the same death, the same violent deaths- the same killings, when I went to see the film Gandhi for the third time in the cinema at the age of 14. It is something David Cameron would do well to remember.

I first went to a glitzy showing of the film in Leicester Square, London with my whole family, including my aunt and uncle who had come over from India, where some of the people involved with the film had met them at their home in Delhi while it was being made; then with a school friend to see it at Marble Arch, London and finally with cousins and friends in Calcutta. (The owner of the petrol station in Southern Avenue had over a dozen tickets spare and gave them to our uncle- our great favourite, my father’s youngest brother, and I was part of a big group.)

Watching General Dyer, in the film, order the troops to turn their guns on the crowds of unarmed people, children, women and men in Amritsar, and to start the Jallianwala Bagh massacre was an entirely different experience in Gariahat, Calcutta to that in either Leicester Square or Marble Arch. There was a sharp intake of breathe in the audience, a feeling that the general had ordered that he turn his guns on us, us personally and then complete dismay. Where in London it was one more scene of violence in one more film, in Gariahat, Calcutta it was something taken personally. My own reaction to the scene and its horror was entirely different in Calcutta and London. In Calcutta the scene was one of pure evil, and in London there was no reaction, no sound and it was just a film.

Black history month is coming to Britain in October, and while some may have forgotten matters such as this massacre, round the world and in Britain there are many who have not forgotten this incident, nor others like it. If you are one of the group more likely to have forgotten or never to have known of it, then all the more reason for you to involve yourself in the history of black and minority ethnic communities and the injustices they have suffered in the past, injustices which may have an impact on their present and future, celebrate all there is to celebrate and remember together with those who already do.

You know what they say about those who fail to learn the lessons of history. Beware all before you sanction killings, not every British person will perceive these through your eyes. Their view is a British one too nonetheless.

* Marisha Ray is a Liberal Democrat London Assembly Candidate for the Barnet and Camden constituency; she was a London Assembly London wide list candidate in 2012 and 2016, a parliamentary candidate in a 2012 by-election, and the 2015 and 2017 General Elections.

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19 Comments

  • What does David Cameron have to do with the film Gandhi?

  • Great post, Marisha.

    @ Z David Cameron visited the site in 2013 and laid a wreath. However he stopped short of making a full formal British l apology, to the great disappointment of the victims relatives, Marisha is correct.

    The Amritsar massacre in 1919,was a real blot on British political history. The official reports quote 379 dead and over 1,000 injured. However, Public Enquiry estimates from Government civil servants in the city cite numbers well over a thousand dead.

    The incident unleashed primitive responses from Tory back benchers in the Conservative dominated Lloyd George Coalition who defended Dyer. Their numbers included General Sir Aylmer Hunter-Weston the Ayrshire MP who had acquired a very dubious reputation as ‘a butcher’ in the Dardanelles and on the Somme.

    The pro Dyer Tories turned their fire on Edwin Montagu (Liberal Secretary of State for India) when the Cabinet decided that Dyer should be recalled. Montagu was only the second Jew to be a Cabinet Minister, and Tory backbench hostility degenerated into virulent anti-semitism and broke his health. Asquith afficionados will know that Montagu was married to Venetia Stanley.

  • Good post, but doesn’t change the fact that Black History Month is a somewhat exclusive and dubious concept and shouldn’t be supported.

  • @ David – that doesn’t explain the connection to the film, in the context of the sentence. It comes over as a very vague aside that needed explanation to make sense.

  • @David and @Jayne
    I don’t agree that an “apology” is appropriate for something that happened in 1919. An apology from who to whom? The perpetrators and victims are all long since dead.

    It is right that David Cameron and other British politicians acknowledge the injustices that happened and make it clear that they should never happen again; and even, where it can be shown that people are still suffering as a direct result of what happened, attempt to make things right. But I see it as a basic principle that people should not be expected to apologise for something they have no connection with. If you are suggesting that Cameron or anybody else is implicated simply because of sharing the same nationality as some long-dead tyrants, then that strikes me as a very illiberal and prejudiced idea. It’s every bit as illogical as asking Muslims to apologise for crimes committed by other Muslims – a suggestion that every sensible person rightly dismisses, but when it comes to blaming white westerners for the crimes of their ancestors, over whom we had no influence, suddenly it seems that apologies are in order.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Sep '15 - 9:51am

    There have been a great many massacres in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka since the colonial era. There were a great many more before. What is the point of singling out those that can be put as “black v. white”?

    Jayne Mansfield talks about being taught that colonies were a “white man’s burden”, but how long ago is it since that sort of thing was taught in our schools? It is surely now the case that imperialism and colonialism are taught as bad things and has been for several decades.

    Now that the generation which was directly involved in colonialism is long gone, shouldn’t we be moving to a more objective view on these things? I am concerned that the line being taken here is more about whipping up resentment than doing something constructive.

    Stuart is right – how would Muslims feel if there was a special month devoted to drawing attention to incidents in the past where Muslims were cruel to non-Muslims, with the hidden implication “See, that’s what Muslims are like, and they need to feel bad about it”?

    There is a particular problem that “it’s all the white man’s fault” seems sometimes to get used as an excuse not to condemn more recent violence and put the blame on those directly carrying out that violence. I think it would be far better just to condemn violence as violence, and not try to stick labels on it.

  • I disagree with the premise of this thread…..I have no problem with learning about one’s own culture but Black History too often appears to emphasise the erroneous tag of a ‘idyllic peaceful culture’ being attacked by white slavers, etc…..This perpetuates the system of “I’m against you because of what your great, great, granddad did”…. Colonialism was not invented by the British and it was no more ‘all bad’ than it was ‘all good’…

    I’d suggest that showing a film that featured the bombing of Dresden would be received differently in Dresden than Leicester Square …. As for not forgetting, Why not, if the alternative is to stoke up resentment in another generation?….
    As for, “You know what they say about those who fail to learn the lessons of history”…I’d suggest it’s far more important ‘What they learn”!

  • I like it that Marisha is taking “African History Month” aka “Black History Month” and redefining it to be something more appropriate to the UK, where due to the empire and commonwealth we share history with a greater diversity of ethnic groups who don’t have an ethnic African heritage.

    Whilst there is a discussion going on about the particular historical incident Marisha mentions, I think the core message of learning about the differing viewpoints of the same events is important. It is only through such learning that we can come to a real understanding and work to try and avoid making the same mistakes – saying ‘sorry’ doesn’t mean that you’ve actually learnt anything (any one with children will know just how glibly they can say ‘sorry’ and then do the same all over again!) This was also part of the power of the truth and reconciliation process undertaken in South Africa.

    Additionally, in a country with a significant and growing population of people who can only trace their presence here to very recent years, we need to be proud of the British history and also understand the baggage and responsibilities British citizenship carries; for David Cameron to make a formal British apology, he is also apologising on the behalf of those who have chosen to adopt British citizenship – including Marisha’s family…

  • The events in India leading up to it’s independence are very interesting. What is particularly noteworthy is that Gandhi understand that the British for all their colonial attitudes and behaviours, still had a very strong sense of justice, conscience and compassion rooted in their Christian faith, hence why he was able to conduct a successful peaceful rebellion and why even today, events such as the Amritsar massacre continue to shock the British. We can compare this to other people’s and conflicts and see that not all societies and people have the same level of conscience – groups such as the Taliban, ISIS wouldn’t blink an eye at committing an Amritsar style of massacre, in fact they are more likely to celebrate it.

    I personally think one of the reasons why Richard Attenborough’s Gandhi is such a powerful film, is because it achieves something nicely summed up by the Queen:

    It is no secret that there have been some difficult episodes in our past – Jallianwala Bagh, which I shall visit tomorrow, is a distressing example. But history cannot be rewritten, however much we might sometimes wish otherwise. It has its moments of sadness, as well as gladness. We must learn from the sadness and build on the gladness

  • I agree with Matthew, in that while it is obviously right that past injustices are fully recognised and discussed, I am concerned that a distorted anti-white narrative is being encouraged at times.

    It would be very interesting to know how much attention will be given during Black History Month to the Arab slave trade. My guess is precisely none, even though the trade was probably greater in scale and (though comparisons may seem invidious) far more barbaric than the Atlantic slave trade. I suspect the Atlantic slave trade will get a great deal of coverage, while most people have not even heard of the Arab slave trade. This kind of double standard does make me feel that white people are being depicted in an unfairly bad light. Many commentators spend their time openly making links between the terrible things done by white people in the past and things being done today (such as recent instances of police brutality against black people). If a white person tried to use the same kind of logic to explain bad things done by non-white people, they would quite rightly be dismissed as crackers.

  • Tomas Howard-Jones 19th Sep '15 - 2:06pm

    The 1919 massacre of of so many protesters at Amritsar was a terrible crime, even then recognised as such by parts of the British political establishment.

    But sadly, Marisha, the 1919 Amritsar massacare looks like a picnic when compared against the pogroms and sectarian massacres of muslim Indians in Ahmedabad and around India’s Gujarat province in 2002.

    There’s now a broad consensus that the 2002 Gujarati pogroms were a form of ethnic cleansing, that it was premeditated, and that it was carried out with the complicity of the Gujarati state government and officers of the law.
    The murder and consequential deaths of several dozen Hindus was somehow used to justify the attack on muslim citizens and portray the massacres as ‘balanced’ intercommunal strife.

    The Hindu nationalists portrayed the state of Gujurat as being a “Victim” of international media smears and stormed to victory in the state elections later that year, as INC- voting muslim citizens had fled or were in hiding.

    The state governor of that time, Narendra Modi, is of course now India’s Prime Minister, so within the last 2 years or so the EU, Britain and the US have lifted the travel ban on him entering EU countries and the US. Modi recently responded to his critics on his sectarian politics by saying “I feel sad when I hear a muslim is killed in a way that I feel sad about a dog being run over”.

    The US Commission on International Religious Freedom Report in 2003 and 2004 called India a “country of particular concern”, citing the violence in 2002. They also wrote the even though India has a tradition of democracy, minorities are subjected to mass killings and intense violence periodically. It also made note that those who carry out these acts of violence are rarely held accountable for their actions.

    Human Rights Watch accuses the state of orchestrating a cover up over their role in the violence. Human rights activists and Indian solicitors have urged that legislation be passed so that “communal violence is treated as genocide”. But following the violence, thousands of Muslims were fired from their places of work, and those who tried to return home had to endure an economic and social boycott.

    Let Black History month NOT focus on the 1919 Amritsar massacre, but on the far more relevant, immediate sectarian injustices that involve politicians and people of today, like the Gujarati massacres and its aftermath.

  • Matthew Huntbach 19th Sep '15 - 10:49pm

    Jayne Mansfield

    And are you saying that many people do not harbour views that are based on a superiority complex forged in part by colonialism?

    Yes. Most people in this country seem to be remarkably ignorant of history, and thus know almost nothing about colonialism. That is, not even enough to have a superiority complex about it.

  • @Jayne Mansfield
    ” do you think David cameron’s partial apology for Jallianwana Bagh when arriving in India as part of a trade delegation was heartfelt?”
    It was probably as heartfelt as any apology coming from someone who had no direct connection with or experience of the events. By way of example, given Marisha is a British citizen, could she (or any other BAME British citizen), if she were in David Cameron’s position, of given a heartfelt apology? I use this in two ways, firstly to emphasis modern Britain isn’t 99% formed from a a single ethnic group and secondly to emphasis that to people living in Britain today the ethos of Britain in 1919 is probably more like a foreign country than the country they know.

    “Where we disagree is probably that I do not believe that knowledge is neutral. Different historians will take opposing views on the consequences of colonialism long after we are gone.”
    Agree there are differing views, hence why I said “I think the core message of learning about the differing viewpoints of the same events is important.”, as both sides generally carry a distorted view of events and the consequences.

    “There are episodes in British history that we should be ashamed of. …”
    To err is human, something that was understood and underpinned Jesus’s teachings in the New Testament…
    So the reason why these events are shameful is because as a society we recognise the error’s made and wish to aspire to (and be seen to) be something better. Yes there are events we would rather not remember, but shame, sadness etc. are of little value unless we use them to build a better future.

    “David Cameron is committed to improving history teaching in our schools…”
    The problem is that there is rather a lot of it! Yes we do need to be careful about what history we teach and the manner of the telling. I would hope the British sense of “fair play” will ultimately prevail and so whilst people like Niall will be consulted, what ultimately gets taught will be more balanced.

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