UK apology for India massacre?

David Cameron Many believe an apology from Mr Cameron will help build a 'special relationship' with India

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Should David Cameron apologise for Britain's colonial past in India, particularly the bloodiest moments like the Amritsar massacre?

His chief diplomat here was confronted with the issue after giving a speech in Delhi a couple of months ago, when an elderly man jailed by the British demanded to know when the UK was going to say sorry.

There's speculation that David Cameron is about to do so during his second trip to India as prime minister.

I was watching the UK High Commissioner's speech and Sir James Bevan's uncomfortable expression made clear that he had no prepared line on the question. He tried to dig himself himself out saying that as he had been born after independence he wasn't qualified to comment.

Some say a proper apology from Mr Cameron will help build the new "special relationship" with India he is seeking.

He has some way to go.

"Except for the kids going to England for education and support on the [UN] Security Council, it matters less and less", says one well-connected Indian investor who'll be in meetings with the Prime Minister.

The use of "England" is one indicator of the 'special relationship' Indians are more interested in.

On the eve of Mr Cameron's arrival, one of its leading papers had a three-page feature headlined 'United States of India' gushing about its obsession with all things American.

The former colonial power didn't even get credit for the language in this love affair, with the paper talking about the two countries being joined by "Americanese".

That India looks more towards the US now is hardly news. It has been for years, with students flocking to its universities and American brands making growing inroads here.

And while Indians are still drawn to British universities, the visa restrictions the prime minister now says won't be as tough for Indians as they sounded have dented that side of the UK's appeal too.

Trade has grown a few billion since his last visit in 2010, but it lags behind European competitors like Germany and even Belgium, with France catching up - and in position to leap ahead if it signs a deal to supply new jets to the Indian air force.

And while India has been busily buying up large chunks of British industry, its biggest trade partners are China and the US.

But UK companies still have plenty of "headroom for growth" in India, says Adrian Mutton who runs Sannam S4, which helps foreign companies get started in India.

So would an apology help?

Mr Cameron can certainly do better than Prince Philip, who made one of his trademark gaffes on a visit to Amritsar in 1997 by describing the death count as "vastly exaggerated".

Relatives of the estimated 1,000 Indians mown down by British bullets in 1919 are reportedly expecting an apology.

And "it would be welcomed across India", says former Indian foreign secretary Shyam Saran.

But any benefits may be short-lived. Author and former business chief Gurcharan Das says a British apology would be like "political gimmickry". It's simply not an issue for most Indians, with over half the population under 30.

"The minds of young Indians have been decolonised," says Das. "The new generation just wants to get on with it."

That's what the UK needs to do too, says the investor. It also needs to focus on what it can bring here.

"With the Japanese, you know they are about railways. With the French, it's nuclear power."

"We don't know what the Brits are here for," he says. "They are all over the place".

Andrew North Article written by Andrew North Andrew North South Asia correspondent

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  • rate this

    Comment number 540.

    There is a famous saying that history is written by the victors. But when a colony like India gained independent by force, it was a blow to the former super power and distorted its version of the history of the empire. And now with India rising it has created a complex post colonial identity crisis for the British and Indians. Let's stick to our versions of the history and look to the future!

  • rate this

    Comment number 539.

    A person like Churchill shd have been prosecuted for many of his crimes against humanity (as per UN terminology), like Hitler.

    I know power/winners write laws, define 'civilization', 'rights & wrongs'. They r never wrong unless forced by more power.
    Unfortunately, power rarely goes with civilization & education that teach humility, ethics.
    Self-interest sometimes provoke a desire to apologize!

  • rate this

    Comment number 538.

    Many asking apologies frm India for riots there for political, religious, caste etc.

    Well, I'm not sure if anyone asked UK to apologize for any crime Brit did in the tiny island (including Scott, Wells) & the neighboring one (Ireland).

    I'm also not sure if justice in UK allow a murderer to go Scott free if s/he can find another murderer who evaded justice or any virtue of that alleged criminal!

  • rate this

    Comment number 537.

    I must apologize that I did not have my history lesson in Britain.
    From the comments of many Brits here, it seems that 'civilized' Brits distorted history to garner public support back home to continue killing & looting its colonies to sustain prosperity & strength in UK, mostly for its 'aristocrats'.
    Indeed, what a great example of 'civilization' & 'education' that many are so proud of!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 536.

    Wow...500+ comments grappling with the issue of whether to say sorry for imperial atrocities?

    What a futile exercise..LOL. Dont you British know we Indians forgave you 60 years ago?

    You may not have the humility to apologize but we have the magnanimity to forgive. We pardoned you. Live in peace...

  • rate this

    Comment number 535.

    It is all very well Cameron grovelling to Indians. What about the massacre of Sikhs and the damage to their Temple by forces ordered to attack Sikh that arch dictator Indira Gandhi?

  • rate this

    Comment number 534.

    should Germany, japan and Italy apologise for ww1 and 2, should Spain say sorry to native Latin Americans, no because it happened in the past and you cant change that unless your Argentina who thinks its not alright for the Falkland islanders to live on the islands because thier ancestors were british but its alright for the 90% of argentina whose ancestors came from spain to live where they do

  • rate this

    Comment number 533.

    You go on the largest UK Trade tour to India, visit Amritsar and refuse to apologise on behalf of the Nation, the massacre that took place there in 1919. Well...........what a waste of time, money and resources that trip has been. Another rip-roaring success for British trade, jobs & diplomacy!!!!

  • rate this

    Comment number 532.

    This is such a hypocrite behavious of the British people. I have stayed in britain for nearly 3 yrs and do recall that the British proudly celebrate their fallen heroes and country-men on remeberance day by wearing the Poppy which reminds everyone of what had happened. They shud be equally remorseful and sorry for similar things the british have done to others !! Shame

  • rate this

    Comment number 531.

    General Dyer used the molesting of one British missionary woman by one man in Punjab as an excuse to punish all Indians. Every man in the village was ordered to crawl on his hands and knees; a crowd protested; General Dyer opened fire, killing 379. His behaviour was strongly criticised by Winston Churchill, and should be forever remembered with deep shame and regret for racism.

  • rate this

    Comment number 530.

    How can I apologize for things by great grand father did?The only thing we can do when on this mortal coil is do our best, try to make things better, and try to avoid doing harm.
    At the time, Dyer's action was condemned, and he was sacked. All we can do is state what we think of Dyer's action. It killed the Raj, twenty three years before the collapse of Singapore.

  • rate this

    Comment number 529.

    I'm sorry, but it is too late for an apology. Please don't try to reassert your colonial self by apologising almost 100 years later. It is just absurd. We don't want and don't care about your guilt.

  • rate this

    Comment number 528.

    1. I don't think any Indian who knows about the Kohinoor wants it back.
    If we are using your logic then we should
    2. All Indians of Mughal descent are criminals and expel them from the country.
    3. We should prosecute the French and the Dutch, along with the Brits.
    4. We should also brand all Indians who served in the British Army as criminals too.
    I can go on but not enough space.

  • rate this

    Comment number 527.

    The two countries have a lot to contribute to each other's well being., and together to that of the world community. Mutual understandings through interactions and social exchanges would make this world a better place to live. We owe this to posterity.
    Good luck David!

  • rate this

    Comment number 526.

    The apology should be from the Queen. The General's commander in chief was the King. Therefore it should the current Commander in Chief who should apologise. An apology must be made for this incident and for the destruction of the countries, and their respective cultures, that existed before "India" came along. That would be a start.

  • rate this

    Comment number 525.

    All right thinking persons in Britain condemned General Dyer's inhuman action at the time As relationship between the two major countries of the Commonwealth have evolved over the years to a very mature level, becoming mutually beneficial by the day. David's calling it a shameful event in British history would help in clearing psychological irritants of past to look forward to better future

  • rate this

    Comment number 524.

    Of course we should apologize, if not why criticize Japan for failing to apologize for Japanese military atrocities during WWII? General Dyer, responsible for the massacre, when he saw some of his troops firing into the air ordered "Fire low. What have you been brought here for?". He lost his command and his pension, but should have been criminally prosecuted. Simple decency requires an apology.

  • rate this

    Comment number 523.

    What the UK has missed is a huge opportunity of having special relationships with the whole of the commonwealth. India's middle class numbers more than Western Europe - all keen to buy and do business.

    The big question is even if Cameron apologies, so what? India knows the deal with the US, Israel, Japan, France, Germany and China - but the UK? What's the offer? A few places at university?

  • rate this

    Comment number 522.

    P J Walton,
    In my observation, they are not indifferent about the holocaust. They are unable to relate to the scale of the atrocities because the country was far removed from it and their history textbooks don’t really talk about the holocaust in detail. Their understanding of it comes from reading texts outside of their education system, watching films and documentaries or travel in Europe.

  • rate this

    Comment number 521.

    As the product of a white working-class family of catholic origin, I don't see why I should be apologising for an atrocity committed by the same upper classes who forced my great-great-grandfather to go to his death in WW1. Or who killed my cousins in Ireland. Or who exploited the poor down the mines etc. Only the race was different.

    Wouldn't surprise me if Dave's uncle was Lord Cameron of Punjab


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