British Prime Minister David Cameron visited the site of a colonial-era massacre in India yesterday, describing the episode as “deeply shameful,” but stopping short of a public apology.
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.
Dressed in a dark suit and bowing his head, he laid a wreath at the memorial to the victims at Jallianwala Bagh, where British troops opened fire on thousands of unarmed protesters in 1919.
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.’”
“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 wrote.
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 at closer 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 the bullets flew.
Mukherjee said Cameron had struggled for words, but had told him he was “regretful and this should not happen ever again” as he left the memorial which has 20,000 visitors a day.
The incident that saw soldiers under General Reginald Dyer’s command open fire on men, women and children in the enclosed area is one of the most infamous of Britain’s colonial rule and helped spur the independence movement.
However, the move to visit the site is seen as a gamble by Cameron, who is traveling with British-Indian parliamentarians, and could lead to calls for similar treatment from other former colonies or even other victims in India.