Massacre deserves an apology
David Cameron yesterday caused controversy because he stopped short of delivering a formal apology for the Amritsar massacre in 1919, in which British troops killed hundreds of innocent Indians.
On a visit to the city in the state of Punjab, Mr Cameron laid a wreath at a memorial to the victims of the massacre, describing the atrocity as "a deeply shameful event in British history".
He added: "We must never forget what happened here."
But he did not apologise, a decision he later defended, saying: "I don't think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things that we should apologise for."
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He noted also that the massacre was "rightly condemned" by the British Government at the time.
War Secretary Winston Churchill described the killings as "monstrous" in 1920.
The issue of whether governments should say sorry for the horrors of the past is not straightforward.
There are a lot of shameful events in British history – as indeed there are in the histories of many other countries – and it would quickly become farcical if prime ministers went around the globe apologising for them all.
It would also devalue the value of an apology.
One should also note that in this case Sukumar Mukhajee, secretary of the memorial committee, welcomed Mr Cameron's remarks.
"He has come here. He has paid his tribute. It is more than an apology," he said.
However, we should also recognise that issuing a formal apology is a hugely symbolic act which means a great deal to people.
And, in this instance, the Amritsar massacre was not only a particularly barbarous and merciless crime but also became identified with British oppression in India.
Given the circumstances, we think a formal apology would have been the right course of action in this case and should have been issued.
However, we do not want to be overly critical of Mr Cameron.
He deserves credit for being the first serving British Prime Minister to pay his respects at Amritsar and for the words he did say.