Cameron visits Amritsar: what happened and why it matters

Feb 20, 2013

The Indian massacre is a dark stain on British history and remains a sensitive issue to this day

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Dvaid Cameron visits Amritsar

DAVID CAMERON has become the first serving PM to visit the site of the Amritsar massacre where at least 379 Indians were killed by British troops in 1919. He expressed his regret at the killings, but disappointed many families of the victims by "stopping short" of a formal apology, The Guardian reports. But what really happened at Amritsar and why does the massacre hold such enormous significance in India?

Where is Amritsar? Amritsar is one of the largest cities in the Punjab region of north-western India. It is a cultural centre for the Sikh religion and home to the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple), which attracts more visitors than the Taj Mahal.

What happened on 13 April, 1919? It was a Sunday and as many as 20,000 Sikhs, Muslims and Hindus had gathered in the city's Jallianwala Bagh gardens to celebrate the traditional festival of Vaisakhi. The city’s British commander, Brigadier-General Reginald E.H. Dyer, had banned public gatherings because he feared an insurrection. As a result he sent 90 troops – 50 of them armed with rifles – to the gardens where they took up a position on a raised bank. Without warning, the troops began to shoot at the crowd of unarmed men, women and children. The British soldiers fired up to 1,650 rounds, stopping only when they ran out of ammunition.

How many were killed? The number of dead has long been disputed. An inquiry commissioned by the Raj colonial authorities found that 379 people died, but "this figure has been widely challenged by Indian sources, who put the death toll at 1,000 or more", reports the London Evening Standard. When Prince Phillip visited the site in 1997 and saw a plaque commemorating 2,000 Indians killed by the British, he said: "That's not right. The number is less." The comment nearly provoked a diplomatic incident.

What was the reaction to the massacre? Winston Churchill called it "monstrous" and Dyer was eventually relieved of his command after being found guilty of a "mistaken notion of duty". The British tried to suppress news of the killings, but they inflamed tensions in India. The massacre "is seen as the low point of the Raj and one of the reasons Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent protest movement gathered support for independence", says the Daily Mail.

Why did Cameron visit the site?
 According to the Financial Times, the visit – at the end of a three-day tour of India – was "aimed squarely at Britain’s 800,000-strong Sikh community, who could be decisive in marginal seats in London and Leicester at the next general election". Cameron has been warned by his pollster Andrew Cooper that his Conservative party is "failing to connect with Britain’s ethnic voters", the paper says.

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Disqus - noscript

why no formal apology? It's been done before - in Ireland - so why not for this?

Anything for votes. How despicable is that? Nothing is sacred to vote begging politicians.