Thought for the Day: Time to apologise?

Today David Cameron became the first serving UK prime minister to visit the Golden Temple of Amritsar.

Having personally received a copy of our Golden Temple book (see link) at last year’s Vaisakhi Downing Street reception, he would have been well primed for this special day. Indeed, the PM said he had been moved by his visit:

‘Today was fascinating and illuminating — to go to the place that is so central to the Sikh religion. I am proud to be the first British prime minister to go and visit the Golden Temple and see what an extraordinary place it is — very moving, very serene, very spiritual. It was a huge honour and a great thing to be able to do. I learnt a lot.’

With an eye on the British Sikh vote he added: ‘In coming here, to Amritsar, we should also celebrate the immense contribution that people from the Punjab play in Britain – the role they play, what they give to our country. What they contribute to our country is outstanding.

‘It is important to understand that, to pay respect to that, and to seek a greater understanding of the Sikh religion. And that is why the visit to the holy temple, the Golden Temple, was so important.’”


He also stopped to pay his respects at Jallianwalah Bagh, the site of the notorious mass shooting of unarmed civilians – men, women and children – by British troops under the command of General Dyer.

The Amritsar Massacre of 1919 has been imprinted in both British and the Indian psyche as a horrific and unforgivable event that also changed history. The killings sent shock waves around the world and galvanised the Indian civil rights and freedom movement to greater efforts to free their country from foreign rule.

Despite widespread condemnation at the time, with even Winston Churchill describing the shootings as ‘a monstrous event, an event which stands in singular and sinister isolation’, the British government has never issued a formal apology for the event.

In 1997 when Queen Elizabeth II and her husband the Duke of Edinburgh paid their respects they also declined to offer a full apology.

No 10 Downing Street is reported to believe that there is no need to apologise because the British state condemned Dyer’s actions at the time. The PM himself said:

‘In my view we are dealing with something here that happened a good 40 years before I was even born, and which Winston Churchill described as ‘monstrous’ at the time and the British government rightly condemned at the time. So I don’t think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things you can apologise for.’

But is that enough? Is it time for the British authorities to ‘do the right thing’ and offer an apology for the wrongdoings of nearly a century ago? Or does the paying of respects in person, the offering of wreaths and bowing of heads by the royals and the PM suffice?

Does David Cameron as the state representative, or anyone else alive today who wasn’t directly connected to the killings, have to apologise for the actions of others a hundred years ago?”

1. Article – ‘David Cameron defends lack of apology for Amritsar massacre’ (Guardian):
2. Article – ‘India: Cameron Visits Amritsar Massacre Site’ (Sky):
3: Our Golden Temple book:


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