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The Times’ Michael Binyon asks if statesmen can change perceptions of their country by bowing, kneeling, apologising or laying wreaths on national monuments and memorials?

How much does the big gesture matter in global politics? The Archbishop of Canterbury’s recent dramatic prostration in front of the memorial to more than 400 unarmed Indian civilians killed by troops of the British Indian army a century ago made headline news around the world. Pictures of him lying, in his clerical robes, flat on his face in the searing heat were splashed across the front pages of newspapers in Britainand India. That was exactly what he had intended.

But the reaction was very different in India to that in the Archbishop’s own country. A storm of scorn and derision was unleashed on social media in Britain. Why should the Archbishop apologise for something that happened three generations ago? What about all the other atrocities and killings that have taken place in the past century – should he not apologise for those also? Why did India not apologise for the Black Hole of Calcutta, even though it happened more than 250 years ago?

The Most Rev Justin Welby made it clear that he was not apologising on behalf of Britain nor its government. He was a religious not a political leader, he said. 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 memorial.

His prostration came at the end of a 12-day visit to India – the longest overseas trip he has made since becoming Archbishop. It was keenly anticipated: the shooting in 1919 of demonstrators protesting at the arrest of two local leaders by the British authorities has left an enduring stain on Britain’s relations with India. Over the years there have been countless demands for an official apology. This has never been made explicit on the British side. The Queen merely expressed “regret” during her state visit in 1997. In April this year Theresa May told Parliament of the “shameful scar” the Amritsar massacre left on Britain’s history.

To many people, the Archbishop’s prostration recalled 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 World War II. He was angrily attacked by critics in Germany; but his heartfelt and emotional response did more than anything else to convince Polandand much of Eastern Europe that Germany had come to terms with its history and was offering a sincere hand of friendship.

Gestures matter because they symbolise a changed attitude. It has now become routine for almost any visiting statesmen to lay wreaths at national war memorials when paying state visits to other countries: how often has a German chancellor done this in Paris and in the capitals of other countries where German soldiers once fought against the nation being visited. Statesmen also are assiduous in paying respects at monuments of great emotional or historic importance: no visiting politician begins a trip in Israel without first offering respect and condolences at Yad Vashem, the memorial to the six million Jews killed in World War II.

Sometimes gestures alone are enough to change historical perceptions or to draw a line under years of bitterness and disagreement. This was vividly demonstrated during the Queen’s state visit to Irelandin 2011. It was the first time a British monarch had visited Dublin since the Irish republic won its independence from Britain 80 years earlier. In all that time, the legacy of bitterness and ill-feeling over Britain’s role in Ireland and the civil war that broke out meant that it was neither politically possible nor safe for a British head of state to visit one of Britain’s closest neighbours.

The Queen’s visit was therefore filled with symbolic gestures and carefully choreographed. She wore a green dress – the Irish national colour. She visited the Garden of Remembrance and laid a wreath to those killed fighting against the British. She visited the football stadium where British troops had shot Irish spectators in 1920. And she began her speech at the state banquet in the Irish language. The effect was enormous: Irish papers were profuse in their congratulations.

The point of gestures is that they then make reconciliation possible. That was the thinking behind the Archbishop’s prostration. Without repentance, reconciliation and tolerance are not possible, he believes. He went to India partly on a pastoral visit to see the two churches – the Church of North India and the Church of South India – that are part of the global Anglican Communion. But he also wanted to strengthen tolerance between faiths and among former enemies – a concern that has been a watchword of his time as Archbishop.

He believes that India holds the key to better relations between the great world faiths. Many of them are based in India or have strong roots there. The country 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 its 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 Assam have been seen by some as discriminatory against minority faiths. And in the last few years these tensions have spilled over in sporadic violent attacks of isolated Christian communities across the country.

Welby knew that any call by a visiting outsider for greater protection for India’s Christian communities – some of them, especially in Kerala in south India, hundreds of years older than Christianity in Europe – would be resented and counter-productive. Instead, he underlined the importance of Article 25 of the constitution, and pointedly expressed the hope that India’s commitment to religious freedom would be vigorously enforced at local level by local authorities.

He went to India, he said before he set off, 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.

Welby did not achieve any dramatic breakthrough in his meetings with Hindu, Muslim, and Sikh leaders, and those of other Christian denominations. But such meetings are important in improving Christian relations in Britain with minority faiths here.  Welby’s visit to the Golden Temple, the most holy shrine of the Sikhs, received considerable publicity in the influential and well-established Sikh community in Britain. It was, as intended, full of gestures of respect and symbolism.

If India can mobilise the engagement of all its faiths to counter its social and community problems, the country could set an example to the world, the Archbishop believes. This would have a powerful effect in Britain and Europe, now multi-cultural communities, where faith is in danger of being a divisive instead of reconciling force.

To achieve that, however, Britain and India had to acknowledge each other’s fraught common history. And that called for a heartfelt gesture from Britain’s most senior religious leader if the stain of Amritsar is to be erased.




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