AMRITSAR (TIP): British PrimeMinister David Cameron visited the site ofa colonial-era massacre in India onFebruary 20, describing the episode as”deeply shameful” while stopping short of apublic apology.On the last leg of a three-day trip aimedat forging deeper economic ties, Camerontook the bold decision to visit the city ofAmritsar and tackle an enduring scar ofBritish rule on the subcontinent, whichended in 1947.Dressed in a dark suit and bowing hishead, he laid a wreath at the memorial tothe victims at Jallianwala Bagh, whereBritish troops opened fire on thousands ofunarmed protesters in 1919.In a message in the visitors’ book, hewrote: “This was a deeply shameful event inBritish history and one that WinstonChurchill rightly declared at the time as’monstrous’.
David Cameron at Jallianwala Bagh
“We must never forget what happenedhere. And in remembering we must ensurethat the United Kingdom stands up for theright of peaceful protest around the world.”The number of casualties at theJallianwala Bagh garden is unclear, withcolonial-era records showing about 400deaths while Indian figures put the numberkilled at closer to 1,000.Bhusan Behl, who heads a trust for thefamilies of victims, has campaigned fordecades on behalf of his grandfather whowas killed at the entrance to the walledarea.
He said he was hoping that Cameronwould say sorry for the slaughter orderedby General Reginald Dyer, which wasimmortalised in Richard Attenborough’sfilm Gandhi and features in SalmanRushdie’s epic book Midnight’s Children.The 1919 slaughter, known in India as theJallianwala Bagh massacre, was describedby Mahatma Gandhi, the father of theIndian independence movement, as havingshaken the foundations of the BritishEmpire.A group of soldiers opened fire on anunarmed crowd without warning in thenorthern Indian city after a period ofunrest, killing hundreds in cold blood.Cameron’s visit and expression of regretfor what happened will stop short of anapology – but will make it clear heconsiders the episode a stain on Britain’shistory that should be acknowledged.
The gesture, coming on the third andfinal day of a visit to India aimed atdrumming up trade and investment, islikely to be seen as an attempt to improverelations with Britain’s former colonialpossession and to court around 1.5 millionBritish voters of Indian origin ahead of a2015 election.Before his visit, Cameron said there wereties of history between the two countries,”both the good and the bad”.”In Amritsar, I want to take theopportunity to pay my respects atJallianwala Bagh,” he said, referring to thesite of the massacre.Cameron is expected to visit Amritsar’sGolden Temple, a place of pilgrimage forSikhs, and to inscribe his thoughts aboutthe killings in the visitor book.When asked to comment on Britain’scolonial past, he said: “I would argue it’s astrength, not a weakness. Of course thereare sensitive issues, sensitive events, butactually the fact that Britain and India havethis history, have a shared culture and ashared language, I think, is a positive.
“The British report into the Amritsarmassacre at the time said 379 people hadbeen killed and 1,200 wounded. But aseparate inquiry commissioned by theIndian pro-independence movement saidaround 1,000 people had been killed.Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, theman who gave the order to fire, explainedhis decision by saying he felt it wasnecessary to “teach a moral lesson to thePunjab”.Some in Britain hailed him “as the manwho saved India”, but others condemnedhim. India became independent in 1947.Many historians consider the massacre aturning point that undermined British ruleof India.It was, they say, one of the moments thatcaused Gandhi and the pro-independenceIndian National Congress movement to losetrust in the British, inspiring them toembark on a path of civil disobedience.
Other British politicians and dignitaries- though no serving prime minister – haveexpressed regret about the incident before.In 1920, Winston Churchill, then thesecretary of state for war, called theAmritsar massacre “a monstrous event”,saying it was “not the British way of doingbusiness”.On a visit to Amritsar in 1997, QueenElizabeth called it a distressing episode, butsaid history could not be rewritten.However, her husband, Prince Philip,courted controversy during the visit whenhe questioned the higher Indian death toll.Before he became prime minister, TonyBlair also visited, saying the memorial atAmritsar was a reminder of “the worstaspects of colonialism”.
In recent years, British leaders havebegun to apologise for some of the excessesof Empire.Visiting Pakistan in 2011, Cameronangered traditionalists at home sayingBritain had caused many of the world’sproblems, including the Kashmir conflictbetween India and Pakistan.When in office, Blair apologised for the19th century Irish potato famine and forBritain’s involvement in the slave trade,while Gordon Brown, his successor,apologised for the fact that British childrenwere shipped to Australia and otherCommonwealth countries between the1920s and 1960s.Britain ruled or held sway in India viathe British East India company from the17th century until 1947.
India’s colonial history remains asensitive subject for many Indians,particularly nationalists who want Britainto recognise and apologise for its excesses.Others believe bygones should bebygones.”What happened in the past happened inthe past,” Aamir Khan, Bollywood film star,told reporters after a meeting withCameron on Tuesday.”I don’t think we can hold the presentgeneration of Britishers responsible forwhat happened ages ago. It is not fair. Idon’t think that they owe us an apology forwhat happened a century ago.”Cameron has said the two countriesenjoy a “special relationship”, a termusually reserved for Britain’s relations withthe United States, but it is a relationshipundergoing profound change.For now, Britain’s economy is the sixthlargest in the world and India’s the 10th.But India is forecast to overtake its oldcolonial master in the decades ahead andLondon wants to share in that economicsuccess.