David Cameron has laid a wreath at the memorial to the 1919 Amritsar massacre in India, bowing his head and standing in silence yesterday to pay respect to those who died – but stopping short of making an official
Writing in the book of condolence, the Prime Minister described the massacre as “a deeply shameful event in British history”, adding “we must never forget what happened here”.
He is the first serving prime minister to visit the Sikh holy city in the north-western state of Punjab, the scene of the most notorious atrocity in Britain’s imperial history in India.
Troops under the command of British Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer fired into a crowd of thousands of protesters, including women, children and elderly people, until their ammunition ran out. An inquiry commissioned by the Raj found 379 people were killed in the public gardens of Jallianwala Bagh, though Indian sources put the death toll at 1,000 or more.
The atrocity helped to fuel
Mahatma Gandhi’s struggle for Indian independence and is seen by historians as a crucial turning point on the road to the end of British rule in India.
The Queen laid a wreath at the memorial in 1997, and called the massacre a “distressing” example of the “moments of sadness” in British-Indian history.
But Mr Cameron’s words yesterday were far stronger.
“This was a deeply shameful event in British history, one that Winston Churchill rightly described at the time as ‘monstrous’,” he wrote.
“We must never forget what happened here, and in remembering we must ensure that the United Kingdom stands up for the right of peaceful protest around the world.”
Mr Cameron made his entry in the book of condolence before a plaque that read: “This place is saturated with the blood of those Indian patriots who were martyred in a non-violent struggle to free India from British domination.”
He was shown around the site of the massacre by descendants of some of those who came under fire in 1919. They pointed out walls where bullet holes could still be seen.
Speaking after the visit, the memorial’s secretary, Sukumar Mukherjee, whose grandfather survived the shootings, was asked if Mr Cameron’s words constituted an apology. He replied: “He has paid his tribute here. It is more than an apology.”
But other descendants were not so happy. Sunil Kapoor, whose great-grandfather died, said: “If you feel shameful then why not make an apology?”
Mr Cameron later explained why he decided not to apologise. “We are dealing with something here that happened a good 40 years before I was born, something that the British government rightly condemned at the time,” he said.
“I don’t think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things that we should apologise for. I think the right thing to do is to acknowledge what happened, to show respect and understanding.”
Mr Cameron also toured
Amritsar’s Golden Temple, the holiest site in the Sikh religion.
Yesterday’s visit came at the end of a three-day trip in which Mr Cameron led the largest trade mission ever to travel overseas with a British PM.