David Cameron offers condolences for 'deeply shameful' Amritsar massacre... but stops short of apologising

PM hopes visit to massacre site will build bridges and impress minority voters at home but defends decision not to go further with his choice of words

Amritsar

David Cameron has defended the British empire on the day that he visited the site of a notorious colonial massacre of unarmed Indians by troops under the command of British officers and described the event as “deeply shameful”. He stopped short of apologising for what took place.

On a visit the site of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, where at least 380 men, women and children were shot in cold blood 94 years ago, the Prime Minister observed a minute’s silence, bowed his head as he laid a wreath and signed a condolence book.

“This was a deeply shameful event in British history, one that Winston Churchill rightly described at the time as “monstrous”. We must never forget what happened here,” he wrote in black pen, underlining the word “never”. “In remembering we must ensure that the United Kingdom stands up for the right to peaceful protest every where in the world. “

Ahead of his three-day visit to India, there had been speculation that Mr Cameron might issue an apology for the massacre, ordered by General Reginald Dyer. But having signed the book, the Prime Minister defended his decision not to go further with his choice of words.

“In my view, we are dealing with something here that happened a good 40 years before I even was born and we are also dealing with something that Winston Churchill described as monstrous at the time and the British government rightly condemned at the time,” he told British reporters. “So I don't think the right thing is to reach back into history and seek out things that you should apologise for. I think the right thing is to acknowledge what happened, to recall what happened, to show respect and understanding for what happened.”

The killings at Jallianwala Bagh represent represent one of the darkest episodes during Britain’s colonial rule of India that stretched more than 250 years. There were many others, such as the Bengal Famine of 1943, when the Government’s inaction allowed anywhere up to four million people to starve to death. Mr Cameron is the first sitting British PM to visit the site.

Asked whether he remained proud of Britain’s colonial history, he said: “I think there is an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British empire did and was responsible for, but of course there were bad events as well as good events and the bad events we should learn from and the good events we should celebrate.”

He added: “In terms of our relationship with India, is our past a help or a handicap, I would say net-net it’s a help because of the shared history, culture, the things that we share and the contribution that Indians talk about that we have made. But obviously when there are bad events we have to remember them and be clear about them and learn from them.”

Mr Cameron was also asked whether Britain should give back items such as the Koh-i-Noor diamond and other things that many consider nothing more than colonial plunder. He said he did not, but that he wanted the British museum and others to continue their tie-ups with foreign institutions. “I certainly don’t believe in returns, as it were,” he added.

During his visit to Jallianwala Bagh, Mr Cameron was shown around the memorial garden by some of the descendants of those who were present in April 13 1919 when troops opened fire without warning and let off 1,650 bullets. He was told about a well into which 120 people perished trying to escape the onslaught and pointed out the 28 bullet marks in a wall, each encircled by white paint and protected behind glass.

It is known that Mr Cameron, who also visited the Golden Temple is keen to attract more potential voters for the Conservatives from Britain’s ethnic minorities, of whom 300,000 to 700,000 are British Sikhs. But his visit threatened to reopen old wounds.

Sunil Kapoor, whose great-grandfather was shot and killed and whose body lay uncollected for six days, said: “If you feel shameful, then why not [make] a proper apology.”

Others believed Mr Cameron had done enough. “He came here and made a gesture to us. He paid his tribute, he gave a minute of silence,” said SK Mukherjee, secretary of the memorial association and whose grandfather survived the atrocity. “By coming here he has made a gesture. It’s a good step for bettering our relations.”

Nigel Collett, author of a history of the massacre, The Butcher of Amritsar, said he did not think Mr Cameron needed to apologise.

“Those who should have apologised are long dead and their failure to apologise, or more particularly to recognise the terrible wrong that had been done, rebounded on them and helped destroy the empire they wished to preserve,” he said. “The Prime Minister took the right approach.”

Earlier, Mr Cameron visited the Golden Temple, a revered place of pilgrimage for Sikhs. Barefoot and wearing a blue scarf wrapped around his head, he visited the celebrated communal kitchens which provide free meals for tens of thousands of pilgrims every day. It was a bright, clean morning and the waters of the temple’s central lake sparkled.

He later said: “I am proud to be the first British prime minister to visit the Golden Temple and see what an extraordinary place it is - very moving, very serene, very spiritual.”

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Retail Buyer / Ecommerce Buyer

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Working closely with the market...

Recruitment Genius: Sales Executive - CAD Software Solutions Sales

£20000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A reputable company, famed for ...

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will also work alongside their seasoned sa...

Day In a Page

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock: How London shaped the director's art and obsessions

Peter Ackroyd on Alfred Hitchcock

Ackroyd has devoted his literary career to chronicling the capital and its characters. He tells John Walsh why he chose the master of suspense as his latest subject
Ryan Reynolds interview: The actor is branching out with Nazi art-theft drama Woman in Gold

Ryan Reynolds branches out in Woman in Gold

For every box-office smash in Ryan Reynolds' Hollywood career, there's always been a misconceived let-down. It's time for a rethink and a reboot, the actor tells James Mottram
Why Robin Williams safeguarded himself against a morbid trend in advertising

Stars safeguard against morbid advertising

As film-makers and advertisers make increasing posthumous use of celebrities' images, some stars are finding new ways of ensuring that they rest in peace
General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public