Indians absorb David Cameron’s near-apology for a colonial-era massacre

February 20, 2013

British Prime Minister David Cameron lays a wreath at the Jallianwala Bagh memorial.(STRDEL/AFP/Getty Images)

NEW DELHI -- It wasn't quite the apology that Indians have been waiting for, but it came close.

After 94 long years, Britain expressed regret on Wednesday for a colonial massacre that killed hundreds of freedom fighters, a shooting incident that many Indian schoolbooks describe in gruesome detail and that helps shape the once-colonized nation's collective memory.

Amid much speculation and demand for an apology, British Prime Minister David Cameron took off his shoes and laid a wreath at the Jallianwala Bagh site of the brutal violence in the northern state of Punjab on the last day of his three-day visit, marked by talks on boosting business ties, a little bit of Bollywood bonhomie hobnobbing and some cricket.

"This was a deeply shameful event in British history -- one that Winston Churchill rightly described at that time as 'monstrous,"' Cameron wrote in the visitor book at the park site. "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."

He underlined the word "never."

A little before sunset on April 13, 1919, British troops fired at thousands of unarmed protesters. Many died in the panic-fueled stampede that followed. Some died when they jumped into a well in the park to escape the firing. The incident killed 379 people and injured more than 1,100, according to  records at that time. Many Indians believe the death toll was much higher.

That event helped to propel the Indian freedom movement, which culminated in 1947 with the nation's independence.

Indians reacting to Cameron's gesture characterized it as everything from graceful to not enough, said television news channel NDTV 24x7. Some Indians said the British were washing off their colonial guilt. Others said that it was aimed at appealing to the Sikh community in Britain.

"His gesture and his comments are very touching; it is like an indirect apology," said Sukh Mukherjee, member secretary of the Jallianwala Bagh park trust.

On Twitter, the hashtags #JalliawalaBagh and #Massacre trended all day here. Here are some representative tweets.

@atulbhats: Its Fine Bro, Past is Past J#JallianwalaBagh

@SudheenKulkarni: Why has it taken so long for a British PM to express regrets over the massacre?

@cyclingsultan: Dear David Cameron, you should have announced a grant to the museum to memorialize the lives lost in Jallianwala Bagh. That is true apology.

@dhume01: Clumsy David Cameron in India: 1. Rake up non-existent issue of apology for 1919 Jallianwala Bagh massacre. 2. Don't actually apologize.

Curiously, another hashtag called #Kohinoor also trended. Kohinoor is a reference to the demand for the return of the resplendent, 106-carat Indian diamond that adorns the British queen's crown.

@Foolhadi: If Jallianwala Baug is deeply shameful, return our Kohinoor diamond to undo it!

Wednesday's near-apology reminded many Indians about an earlier visit, in 1997, by Queen Elizabeth II and her husband Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh, which had sparked controversy, too.

After visiting the park, Philip had fueled Indians anger when he said to the park official of the death count of 2,000 listed on a plaque, "That's a bit exaggerated; it must include the wounded."

Prince Philip's assertion may have been accurate, but the fact that it was the only aspect of the massacre that exercised his imagination caused some offense in India, Frontline magazine wrote at the time.

In November 1996, descendants of some of British officers responsible for the massacre visited the site, wept and apologized to the Indians present there.

Rama Lakshmi has been with The Post's India bureau since 1990. She is a staff writer and India social media editor for Post World.
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