Print edition : November 01, 1997

New Labour, the royal couple and the Sikh Right variously saw India as a theatrical set on which a Raj drama could be played for the benefit of an English audience.

The Hon. Col. Josiah Wedgwood: Centuries hence you will have Indian children brought to this spot, just as they now visit the Cawnpore well, and you can imagine the feelings of these Indians for generations to come over this terrible business.

An Hon. Member: What would you have done?

The Hon. Col. Josiah Wedgwood: I would not have committed murder. Think what this means! You will have a shrine erected there and every year there will be processions of Indians visiting the tombs of the martyrs, and Englishmen will go there and stand bareheaded before it.

- Debates, House of Commons, 1920, Vol. XXXI, p. 1720 ff. (Punjab Governor Michael O'Dwyer and Brigadier General R.E.H. Dyer were present for this historic debate on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.)

The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh after laying a wreath at the Jallianwala Bagh memorial. Behind them are Punjab Governor Lt. Gen.(retd.) B.K.N. Chibber and Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal.-S. ARNEJA

ON October 14, Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, stood not just bareheaded but also barefoot before the Flame of Liberty memorial at Jallianwalla Bagh. Josiah Wedgwood would have derived some quiet satisfaction from the spectacle. His concern, like that of his Liberal contemporaries, was not with the dead of Jallianwala Bagh but with the vanishing of the imagined moral authority of the Empire. The wreath that Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip laid at the Flame of Liberty sought to re-establish this authority in a post-imperial age.

But the enterprise, predictably, degenerated into farce. The only ecstatic subjects the Queen could find were the Shiromani Gurdwara Prabandhak Committee (SGPC) and the clergy of the Golden Temple, for the people of Amritsar reacted to her presence with ill-disguised boredom. Long before Prince Philip's bizarre contestation of the number of dead at Jallianwala Bagh became public, New Labour's triumphal proclamation of the imperial heritage it has newly appropriated had provoked more than a little ire.

The spectacle in Amritsar might best be understood as a somewhat fetid political onion. Its many layers of meaning were peeled away in full public view, the first with devastating effect. Minutes after Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip stood in silence at the Flame of Liberty, the Duke of Edinburgh and his guide, Partha Sarathi Mukherjee, reached a plaque recording the events of the 1919 massacre. Among the many things found on the plaque was the assertion that 2,000 people were killed by Gen. Dyer's troops. (The precise text is: "This place is saturated with the blood of about two thousand Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims who were martyred in a non-violent struggle." It goes on to describe the events of that day.)

"That's a bit exaggerated," Philip asserted, "it must include the wounded." Mukherjee, whose brother S.K. Mukherjee is the secretary of the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial Trust, may already have been a little upset by the failure of the Queen and the Duke to record anything other than their signatures on the visitors' book. He did not, however, articulate his feelings, and merely asked Philip how he had come to this conclusion. "I was told about the killings by General Dyer's son," Mukherjee recalls the Duke as saying, "I'd met him while I was in the Navy."

That the solitary comment Prince Philip had to offer after his visit to Jallianwala Bagh was on this issue made clear that the living symbols of New Labour's imperial heritage were wholly unreconstructed. The Duke of Edinburgh was not willing to be humbled before a monument to the murderous brutality of British colonialism. The issue was not, contrary to some reportage, the number of people killed on that fateful Baisakhi day. The record ranged from 290, the initial government estimate, to 1,000, the figure broadly accepted by the Indian National Congress' independent inquiry (see separate story). Prince Philip's assertion may have been entirely accurate, but the fact that it was the only aspect of the massacre that exercised his imagination, caused offence. It suggested that the death of 379 people was in some way inadequate to appall the royal conscience, in the way the death of 2,000 people would have. Perhaps more important of all, the staggering arrogance that Prince Philip displayed in citing his source of information on the tragedy made clear the lack of integrity in the wreath-laying.

BUT why was the visit to Jallianwala Bagh and the subsequent visit to the Golden Temple important to New Labour in the first place? Part of the answer lies in the New Nationalism of New Labour. The party's reconstruction by Prime Minister Tony Blair has in part consisted of the appropriation of that traditional Conservative platform, Britain's imperial past. This strategy was invented to deny the Right electoral recourse to ultra-nationalism, of the kind witnessed during the Falklands war. It finds articulation in New Labour's foreign policy - witness British Foreign Secretary Robin Cook's recent assertions that an interventionist role in Kashmir would be justified by its "obligations as the former colonial power."

But the new nationalism also serves a vital, and often unanalysed, domestic agenda. For Asian migrants in the United Kingdom, the Empire provides a vital, if misguided, defence against racism, emphasising the historic linkages between their state of origin and white Britain, thus legitimising their presence in that country. Labour's multiculturalism is in fact founded on "imperial heritage": a politics that subsumes minority cultures within a broader narrative of England and the Empire.

The Queen's visit to Amritsar served Labour's Sikh constituency by providing legitimacy and dignity to the existence of this largely working class and politically marginal community. Its politics was, in this sense, identical to that of the Queen's subsequent visit to the Ekambaranathar temple in Kancheepuram, near Chennai, targeted at relatively affluent Hindu migrants in the U.K. New Labour has assiduously cultivated Sikh voters in the U.K., on occasion flirting with far-right Khalistan groups. A simple visit to the Golden Temple would not by itself have served to incorporate Britain's Sikhs within Labour's new nationalism. Memories of resistance to imperialism are still alive, particularly among an older generation of immigrants, and the visit to Jallianwala Bagh was essential if a burial of the past was to be signalled.

Although Elizabeth's son Prince Charles has visited minority places of worship in the U.K., this was reportedly the Queen's first visit to a gurdwara. The transformation of the head of the Church of England into a multicultural monarch is unlikely to be smooth, but it is integral to Labour's project.

Jagmohan Singh (centre), nephew of Bhagat Singh, during a demonstration in New Delhi on October 8 to demand an apology from the Queen for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.-KAMAL KISHORE / REUTERS

UNSURPRISINGLY, New Labour's new nationalism feeds and informs the worst kinds of obscurantism in Punjab itself. SGPC president Gurcharan Singh Tohra, for example, argued that the Queen's visit was vital if the truth about Operation Bluestar and state repression against Sikhs was to become known to the world. The Sikh Right, like its Hindu and Islamic counterparts (to varying degrees), is financially underwritten by emigrants in the West, who seek to address their own cultural neurosis and anxieties by sponsoring revanchism in Punjab, the imagined repository of their identities. The Right's attraction to emigre Sikhs has been its spurious claim that it is engaged in a battle against a state enterprise of genocide and cultural annihilation in Punjab. Tohra now sought to use New Labour's nationalism to affirm his own position as a legitimate spokesman for Sikhs as a whole, a preposterous claim that the Western media uncritically accepted (see box). At the end of the Queen's visit to the Golden Temple, Tohra said that Elizabeth had been shown bullet marks from Operation Bluestar, in which she had shown "great interest".

Communal politics, then, constituted the third layer of the Amritsar onion. Tohra's need to sustain the fictions of the Sikh Right explains the SGPC's obsequious handling of the Queen's visit. Religious workers had been assembled to shout slogans of "Queen Zindabad", as Tohra and Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal offered gifts to the imperial visitor. Elizabeth and Philip remained seated as the dignitaries gifted them a gold-plated model of the temple, sponsored by a Birmingham-based religious group, and an ornamental sword. Both Badal and Tohra bent over in a hilariously low bow when the still-seated Queen gave them a flower vase each.

The Queen at the Golden Temple in Amritsar. SGPC chief G.S. Tohra, Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal and State Minister Manjit Singh Calcutta accompanied the royal entourage.-S. ARNEJA

The Jathedar of the Akal Takht, the supreme seat of Sikh spiritual authority, gifted Elizabeth a rosary. Jathedar Ranjit Singh's gift may have been the first given to Elizabeth by a convicted murderer. The Jathedar is currently attempting to evade the completion of his term of imprisonment for the killing of the minority Nirankari sect leader, Baba Gurbachan Singh, as ordered by the Delhi High Court. His supporters, including Tohra, argue that religious leaders are above the law and that the failure to remit Ranjit Singh's sentence could cause violence.

The only protest to the Queen's visit, and the SGPC's decision to parody its revolutionary origins by reducing itself to an oriental vassal of the Empire, came from Shaheed Bhagat Singh's nephew, Jagmohan Singh. The Ludhiana academic led a series of protests in Amritsar during the Queen's visit, culminating in a gathering at Jallianwala Bagh shortly after her departure. Jagmohan Singh had earlier demanded an apology from the Queen for the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. This demand was resisted, for reasons New Labour best understands. Successive British governments have demanded apologies from Japan for the treatment of British prisoners of war, while Prime Minister Blair has apologised for Britain's role in the Irish potato famine of 1846.

The demand for an apology, however, is in itself not without problems. It suggests, for one, that India's experience of colonialism is in some need of imperial acknowledgement or validation. It also raises questions of what historical atonement might consist of. Apologising for colonial crimes and at once claiming to represent an imperial heritage would clearly be absurd.

That the visit of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip had so little impact on the popular imagination in India merely underlines the fact that the visit was not, in any meaningful sense, about India at all. New Labour, the royal couple and the Sikh Right variously saw India as a theatrical set on which a Raj drama could be played for the benefit of an English audience. The occasion of the golden jubilee of India's Independence merely provided a backdrop, or rather a legitimating detail, for the theatrics. In 1905, when George, the Prince of Wales, and Princess Victoria Mary, paid a visit, India's people were perhaps less able to resist being used as props. "The afternoon drive to the Golden Temple was the people's festival," wrote chronicler Stanley Reid. "Not since they left Bombay have their Royal Highnesses seen so many happy faces crowded into a narrow space. The native town of Amritsar was so packed that the wonder was how the balconies stood the strain. A cheerful hum rippled up and down the throng, a shrill laugh was always heard."

Back in London, the Queen may well have laid her model of the Golden Temple next to an identical gift received by Mary Victoria in 1905. But the natives lining the route this time were mainly schoolchildren press-ganged into service. In the afternoon heat, their faces were most certainly not happy.