U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron described the killing by the British army of hundreds of unarmed civilians in Amritsar in 1919 as “deeply shameful,” stopping short of an apology for a massacre that galvanized India’s independence movement.
Cameron went to the Golden Temple in the north Indian city, the spiritual home to the world’s 20 million Sikhs, ending a three-day visit to the South Asian nation primarily aimed at boosting bilateral trade and investment. It’s the first time a serving U.K. premier has visited the site of the killings, Jallianwala Bagh.
“This is a deeply shameful event in British history, one that Winston Churchill rightly described as monstrous,” said Cameron, who also laid a wreath at the site today. “We must never forget what happened here and in remembering, we must ensure that the United Kingdom stands up for the rights of peaceful protest around the world.”
The visit during Cameron’s second trip to India since becoming prime minister in 2010 was aimed at winning backing from Britain’s almost 400,000 Sikhs, some of whom live in swing electoral districts such as Harrow and Hendon in north London, which his Conservative Party needs to win if it is to retain power at the 2015 election.
It failed to convince some with personal links to the killings almost a century ago.
“If he is feeling shameful, then why not apologize?” said Sunil Kapoor, 36, president of a freedom fighters’ association in Amritsar, who said his great-grandfather was among those killed in 1919 by the British. Kapoor said he was unhappy Cameron didn’t meet descendants of the victims.
Churchill called the shooting “monstrous” when he was war secretary in 1920.
“There is an enormous amount to be proud of in what the British Empire did and was responsible for, but of course there were good events and there were bad events, and the bad events we should learn from and the good events we should celebrate,” Cameron told reporters after his visit.
The prime minister arrived in Mumbai on Feb. 18 with representatives from more than 100 U.K. companies, the biggest ever business delegation to India, for three days of talks aimed at increasing trade. The visit heralded the creation of a network of government-sponsored trade offices throughout the South Asian country by 2017.
As an opening salvo, Cameron said the U.K. would relax visa rules for business people, cutting the time it takes to clear the paperwork to one day from about three days currently. He also pledged help to develop towns on the road that runs from Mumbai to Bangalore.
He flew to Delhi yesterday for talks with his Indian counterpart, Manmohan Singh, who sought British assistance in a probe into allegations of payments of bribes in a deal to buy helicopters from Finmeccanica SpA’s U.K. unit AgustaWestland.
Cameron also met Bollywood actor Aamir Khan, who said there was no need for the prime minister to say sorry over the massacre.
“I don’t think that they owe us an apology for what happened a century ago,” Khan told reporters during a visit with Cameron to a women’s campus at Delhi University, referring to the Amritsar killings. “I don’t think we can hold the present generation of Britishers responsible for what happened ages ago.”
The previous Labour administration in the U.K. apologized for the Irish potato famine, deportations of children to Australia, the treatment of Maoris in New Zealand and the slave trade.
“I don’t think the right thing to do is to reach back into history and to seek out things that you should apologize for,” Cameron told reporters. “I think the right thing to do is to have knowledge of what happened, to recall what happened and show respect and understanding.”
On April 13, 1919, the day of a Sikh festival, British troops commanded by General Reginald Dyer opened fire on thousands of unarmed Indians protesting the extension of emergency powers. The attack in Jallianwala Bagh, an enclosed public garden, killed 379 Indians according to colonial government estimates and at least 1,000 according to the Indian Congress movement. Many more were injured.