Sikhs help Queen save face in Amritsar

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The Independent Online
Prince Philip yesterday queried the death toll of the Amritsar massacre as he and the Queen made a sensitive visit to the city. Peter Popham says his remarks spoiled a successful day marked by enthusiastic crowds and a rapturous welcome at the Go lden Temple. The Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh visited the northern Indian city of Amritsar yesterday, where they laid a wreath at the memorial to the hundreds killed in Jallianwala Bagh park in 1919 by British troops under General Reginald Dyer. Afterwards they were treated to a phantasmagorical tour of the Golden Temple.

This was the trip the Indian prime minister, IK Gujral, had advised the Queen to skip, but it was the first time the tour has come alive. What is the point of a royal tour if there is no one on the streets waving? Until yesterday that has been the Queen's lot: vacant streets, a few limp Union Flags, the occasional press-ganged gaggle of schoolchildren.

Amritsar was different. Every school child in the city, it seemed, was on the streets waving flags, there were golden streamers everywhere, even strung around the statue of the assassin of the former British lieutenant- governor.

Yet the festive mood masked a more complicated reality. Early in the morning a demonstration in the city against the Queen's visit ended in a baton charge by police, with injuries and arrests.

Except for police and press, Jallianwala Bagh park was empty when the Queen and her entourage walked briskly in. She and Prince Philip laid a wreath at the obelisk commemorating the atrocity, then walked briskly out again. It was brief, even perfunctory, but relatives of those who died pronounced the visit "a sufficient act of atonement".

Prince Philip had, perhaps, atoned less than some might wish. On his way out, he stopped to query an official toll of the "martyred". "Two thousand? It wasn't, was it?" he said. Prince Philip was confident of his facts: "That's wrong. I was in the navy with Dyer's son."

Down the road, a very different scene awaited them. The Golden Temple, the Vatican of Sikhism, is a confection of white marble and gold leaf, with a lake full of carp where on ordinary days believers immerse themselves.Today the complex was crammed with the faithful in gorgeous Sikh costume, with swords and shields and daggers, sages with long grey beards, nuns and monks all in white.

It was fantastically exotic: it would take a Bertolucci to do it justice. Through this the Queen and the Duke were propelled: through the Holy of Holies, in and out of the Akhal Takhat shrine, almost destroyed by army tanks during the siege of 1984. It was organised Indian chaos, but the royal couple were treated as gently as porcelain, and loaded with gifts.

But why so warm here and so tepid elsewhere? According to local journalist, the Queen has helped restore the esteem so brutally damaged in 1984.

Gurchan Singh Tora, president of Sikhism's ruling body, said: "The Queen's visit will send the message around the world that peace prevails in the Golden Temple." No wonder the Indian government seems so wary about the purpose of the royal visit.