In India, Britain’s David Cameron offers near-apology for colonial-era massacre

Raminder Pal Singh/European Pressphoto Agency - British Prime Minister David Cameron lays a wreath at the Jallianwala Bagh park in Amritsar, India, site of a 1919 massacre by British troops.

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

After 94 years, Britain expressed regret Wednesday for a colonial-era incident in which British troops fired on pro-independence protesters in the northern state of Punjab, killing hundreds. The massacre is described in gruesome detail in many Indian textbooks and has helped shape the nation’s collective memory.

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Amid much speculation and demand for an apology, British Prime Minister David Cameron took off his shoes and laid a wreath at the site of the shooting in the city of Amritsar on the last day of a three-day visit to India.

“This was a deeply shameful event in British history — one that Winston Churchill rightly described at that time as ‘monstrous,’ ” Cameron wrote in the visitors book at the site in Jallianwala Bagh park. “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.”

British troops opened fire on the crowd of thousands of unarmed protesters a little before sunset on April 13, 1919, fueling a panicked stampede. According to contemporary records, 379 were killed in all and more than 1,100 were injured, although many Indians believe the death toll was much higher.

The incident helped to galvanize the Indian freedom movement, which culminated in 1947 with the nation’s independence.

Indians reacting to Cameron’s gesture Wednesday characterized it as everything from graceful to inadequate, the news channel NDTV 24×7 reported. Some said the British were seeking to erase their colonial guilt. Others speculated that Cameron was appealing to Britain’s Sikh community.

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

Cameron’s near-apology reminded many Indians of a 1997 visit to Jallianwala Bagh by Queen Elizabeth II and her husband, Prince Philip. Philip caused an outcry when, after viewing a plaque that listed the death toll at 2,000, he remarked to a park official: “That’s a bit exaggerated; it must include the wounded.”

The 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 the British officers responsible for the massacre visited the site, wept and apologized to the Indians present there.

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