Published on 20 Feb 2013

Cameron to visit scene of Amritsar massacre

David Cameron will today visit the scene of the Amritsar massacre. There’s been some speculation that he might use the visit to apologise to India for the hurt and pain these killings caused. He’s decided not to go down that specific route. He will express sorrow and write his own words in the remembrance book at the site instead. Will that do? Why no apology?

David Cameron was underwhelmed by Tony Blair’s big historical statements, apologising for wrongs done by others in the past. Tony Blair apologised for the Irish famine in 1997. He expressed his “sorrow” for slavery in 2006.

David Cameron is said¬† to have privately disparaged the Blair model full-scale historical apology in the past. Here’s how the journalist Charles Moore attacked the slavery statement back in 2006.

But the danger for him is that he might raise expectations simply by visiting the site only to disappoint when he doesn’t go any further than say, the Queen, when she visited the site of the massacre in 1997. (Her husband ended up the story when he told Indian journalists at the scene that the death toll had been exaggerated).

It will raise questions about quite why David Cameron is going there at all. The Punjab’s capital like many other state capitals in India has its own growing economy. Many visiting leaders try to take in another city to promote links beyond Delhi and Mumbai. But, perhaps surprisingly, David Cameron’s aides have openly been briefing that the PM has an eye on the Sikh vote in marginal seats back home. Tories perform poorly amongst ethnic minority voters on the whole and those voters are critical to many marginal seats. Mr Cameron’s team has studied analysis of ethnic minority voters, including Lord Ashcroft’s polling report.

Sikhs have been identified as one group more susceptible than some others to David Cameron, seeing him as an improvement on past Tory leaders. Amritsar is the spiritual home of Sikhism. The hope in Team Cameron is that the gesture will be seen as proof of virtue not cynicism.

And what of the 1919 massacre itself is being remembered? Britain’s General Dyer decided that a gathering of thousands of Indians in a garden in Amritsar (some protesting some just there to mark a festival day) confirmed his fears of a conspiracy to overthrow British rule. He also wanted to teach Indians collectively a lesson for earlier attacks and rebellious acts.

When thousands gathered at the open space hemmed in by walls and houses he blocked off one entrance and ordered 50 rifleman to fire at the crowd. Women, children and elderly were amongst those who died in the ten minutes of relentless firing. When the ammunition rounds were finished, Gen Dyer promptly departed the scene with his troops. The death toll estimates vary from the official 379 dead figure to a figure four times the size.

John Keane says in his India: A History, “the crowd had offered no threat, Dyer had given no warning; communication was by bullet alone”.

Keane goes on: “On an April afternoon in Amritsar, in a few minutes of vindictive folly, the moral pretence for British rule had been riddled into transparency, and all hope of peaceful post-war collaboration blown away in the maelstrom of killing.”

Churchill, the then Secretary for War in the Lloyd George Coalition government, wound up the Commons debate on the subsequent inquiry (this official inquiry was not a Lord Widgery-style whitewash, but quickly concluded within months Dyer had acted wrongfully.) Churchill called the massacre, “an episode without precedent or parallel in the modern history of the British Empire… an extraordinary event, a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation… the crowd was neither armed nor attacking”.

Rudyard Kipling and the Morning Post, predecessor of the Daily Telegraph, kicked off a fundraising of ¬£26,000 for the general’s comfort in retirement. All of which reached the ears of Indians and nauseated them.

There our countless tales of how the massacre radicalised Indians. One, Jawaharlal Nehru’s pro-British father, Motilal, immediately turned against the colonial master. Nehru’s daughter, Indira Gandhi, claimed her earliest memory was watching her grandfather ceremoniously burn his London clothes.

So this is a very central episode in India’s history and its consciousness as an indepedent state. For David Cameron, getting the visit and the words right is very important. Much of his visit to India will pass Indians by but this probably won’t.

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One reader comment

  1. Vijayakumar says:

    Yes, Indians won’t forget this event. There is still a memorial in Jalian wala Bagh Amritsar, with the bullet marks in the walls of the garden. There is only a small narrow passage to escape where the dyer troops were firing near to that passage not allowing a single person to escape. I heard that, After the firing over the troops fired in the well (Which is inside the garden) to confirm all the peoples jumped into the well were dead.

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