David Cameron was the first serving prime minister to voice regret about the Jallianwala Bagh massacre in Amritsar, although Queen Elizabeth made a similar appearance in 1997 that at the time caused an outpouring of pained reflections about India’s colonial history under Britain. Mr. Cameron’s trip, perhaps because it is his third one here or because Britain’s role in India has become relatively less important, has caused far less comment and consternation.
"This was a deeply shameful event in British history – one that Winston Churchill rightly described at that time as monstrous,” Mr. Cameron wrote in the visitor’s notebook at the pink granite memorial.
Like the queen before him, Mr. Cameron did not offer a full apology, a fact that was duly noted by Indian media. Britain’s colonial history is so replete with regrettable episodes that officials have quietly worried that an apology for one episode might lead to an outpouring of demands for similar apologies all over the world.
In 1919, Brig. Reginald Dyer, a British officer administering martial law, ordered 50 soldiers to open fire on a crowd of about 10,000 unarmed Indians protesting a postwar extension of World War 1 detention laws. A British inquiry concluded that 379 people were killed and 1,100 wounded, but an Indian inquiry estimated that 1,000 died.
Fortunately for Mr. Cameron, Prince Philip was not on this trip. When Queen Elizabeth visited the Amritsar memorial in 1997, the queen’s royal consort was overheard griping that the memorial’s official signage "vastly exaggerated” the death toll, a fact that he said he had learned from Brigadier Dyer’s son when the two men were cadets in the Royal Navy before World War II.
The nearly sacrilegious remark touched off a storm of commentary, little of it beneficial to the visitors. The Amritsar massacre is seen by many Indian historians as a crucial moment in the country’s struggle for independence.
Mr. Cameron’s trip is intended to bolster the two countries’ business and trade ties and perhaps strengthen his support among 1.5 million British voters of Indian descent. On Tuesday, Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh asked for Mr. Cameron’s assistance in the increasingly embarrassing bribery investigation into India’s purchase of 12 AgustaWestland helicopters made at a plant in Britain.
AgustaWestland’s parent company, Finmeccanica, is based in Italy, and the company’s chairman and chief executive, Giuseppe Orsi, was arrested recently on corruption and fraud charges after investigators charged that Finmeccanica had engaged in an elaborate scheme to bribe Indian generals to win the contract, charges that at least one of the top generals has firmly denied. The case has become a black eye for Mr. Singh’s governing coalition.
While stressing that Finmeccanica is "an Italian company,” Mr. Cameron promised to "respond to any request for information."