Published — Thursday 21 February 2013
Last update 20 February 2013 9:25 pm
AMRITSAR, India: Britain's prime minister laid a mourning wreath yesterday at the site of a notorious 1919 massacre of hundreds of Indians by British colonial forces, calling the killings "a shameful event in British history."
David Cameron was the first British premier to make a gesture of condolence at Jallianwala Bagh in the northwest city of Amritsar, but he stopped short of issuing a formal apology for his country's actions 94 years earlier.
"This is a deeply shameful event in British history — one that Winston Churchill rightly described at the time as 'monstrous,'" Cameron wrote in the visitors' book at the site.
"We must never forget what happened here. And in remembering we must realize that the United Kingdom stands for the right of peaceful protest around the world."
The park was the site of an attack by British colonial troops on unarmed Indians attending a rally calling for independence.
On the last leg of a three-day trip aimed at forging deeper economic ties, Cameron took the bold decision to visit the city of Amritsar and tackle an enduring scar of British rule over the subcontinent, which ended in 1947.
In a message in the visitors' book, he wrote: "This was a deeply shameful event in British history and one that Winston Churchill rightly declared at the time as 'monstrous.'
He later defended his decision not to say sorry, explaining that it happened 40 years before he was born and "I don't think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologize for."
"I think the right thing is to acknowledge what happened, to recall what happened, to show respect and understanding for what happened," The Guardian newspaper quoted him as saying.
The number of casualties at the Jallianwala Bagh garden is unclear, with colonial-era records showing about 400 deaths while Indian figures put the number killed close to 1,000.
S.K. Mukherjee, the secretary of the Jallianwala Bagh memorial trust, spent half an hour guiding the British leader around the site, showing him a well into which 120 people jumped to their deaths as well as bullet holes in the walls.
The incident saw soldiers under General Reginald Dyer's command open fire on men, women and children in the enclosed area in one of the most infamous episodes of Britain's colonial rule that helped spur the independence movement.
It immediately invited a debate about why Cameron was opening up wounds from the past — and was stopping short of saying sorry — during a visit designed to stress the future of Indo-British ties.
Cameron said Monday in Mumbai that he wanted Britain to be India's "partner of choice," stressing their shared history, democratic values and the 1.5 million Britons of Indian origin as a foundation for a deeper alliance.
"Writing a note in the visitors' diary is a half-hearted approach. He should have met us to say sorry," Bhusan Behl, who heads a trust for the families of Jallianwala Bagh victims, told AFP.
Cameron is the first serving British prime minister to visit the site, diplomatic sources said, but not the first senior British public figure.
In 1997 the Queen laid a wreath at a site during a tour of India.
Daljit Kaur, a 29-year-old British citizen of Indian origin, praised Cameron, who has visited India twice and made building an alliance with New Delhi a foreign policy priority since his election in 2010.
"I am proud that a British prime minister has admitted the blunders committed by former leaders and has invested his energy to understand Indian culture," she said.
Earlier in the day Cameron visited the Golden Temple of the Sikh religion, where he walked around bare foot and was photographed wearing a blue cloth covering his head.
Cameron has made several official apologies since becoming prime minister, saying sorry for the official handling of a football disaster at Hillsborough stadium in 1989 and 1972 killings in Northern Ireland known as "Bloody Sunday."