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PM lays wreath at massacre site

David Cameron has laid a wreath at the memorial to the 1919 Amritsar massacre in India, bowing his head and standing in silence to pay respect to those who died.

Writing in the memorial book of condolence, Mr Cameron described the massacre as "a deeply shameful event in British history", adding "we must never forget what happened here".

He is the first serving Prime Minister to visit the Sikh holy city in the north-western state of Punjab, the scene of the most notorious atrocity in Britain's imperial history in India.

Troops under the command of British Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer shot into a crowd of thousands of protesters, including women, children and elderly people, until their ammunition ran out.

An inquiry commissioned by the Raj colonial authorities found that 379 people were killed in the public gardens of Jallianwala Bagh, though this figure has been widely challenged by Indian sources, who put the death toll at 1,000 or more.

The atrocity helped fuel Mahatma Gandhi's struggle for Indian independence and is seen by historians as a crucial turning point on the road to the end of British rule in India.

In 1997, the Queen laid a wreath at the memorial and described the massacre as a "distressing" example of the "moments of sadness" in Anglo-Indian history.

But Mr Cameron's words were far stronger. "This was a deeply shameful event in British history, one that Winston Churchill rightly described at the time as 'monstrous'," he wrote.

"We must never forget what happened here, and in remembering we must ensure that the United Kingdom stands up for the right of peaceful protest around the world."

Mr Cameron made his entry in the book of condolence seated at a table before a memorial plaque which read: "This place is saturated with the blood of those Indian patriots who were martyred in a non-violent struggle to free India from British domination."

Mr Cameron was shown around the site of the massacre by descendants of some of those who came under fire in 1919. They pointed out walls where bullet holes can still be seen and the Martyrs' Well where many people died after seeking shelter from the volleys of bullets.

The Prime Minister viewed a flame which burns continuously at the memorial in honour of the fallen.

Speaking after the visit, the memorial's secretary Sukumar Mukherjee, whose grandfather survived the shootings, was asked if Mr Cameron's words constituted an apology.

He replied: "He has come here, he has paid his tribute here. It is more than an apology."

But other descendants were not so happy. Sunil Kapoor, whose great-grandfather died, said: "If you feel shameful then why not make an apology?"

Mr Cameron later explained why he decided not to apologise. "In my view, we are dealing with something here that happened a good 40 years before I was born, and we are dealing with something that... the British Government rightly condemned at the time," he said.

"I don't think the right thing is to reach back into history and to seek out things that we should apologise for. I think the right thing to do is to acknowledge what happened, to recall what happened, to show respect and understanding."

Before visiting the massacre site, Mr Cameron toured Amritsar's Golden Temple, the holiest site in the Sikh religion.

Barefoot and wearing a blue bandana head-covering, the Prime Minister visited the kitchens which feed thousands of pilgrims every day and tried his hand at flipping chapatis before entering the historic shrine itself.

He later described the visit as "fascinating and illuminating", adding: "I am proud to be the first British prime minister to visit the Golden Temple and see what an extraordinary place it is - very moving, very serene, very spiritual."

Mr Cameron has previously said that Conservatives need to do more to attract voters from ethnic minorities, including as many as 700,000 Sikhs in the UK, and he made clear that today's visit was intended to demonstrate the respect he feels towards their community.

"In coming here to Amritsar, we should celebrate the immense contribution that people from the Punjab (make) in Britain, the role they play, what they give to our country," the PM said.

"What they contribute to our country is outstanding and it is important to understand that and pay respect to that and to seek a greater understanding of the Sikh religion and that is why this visit to the holy temple, the Golden Temple, was so important."

The visit came at the end of a three-day trip which saw Mr Cameron hold talks with his Indian counterpart Manmohan Singh and lead the largest trade mission ever to travel overseas with a British Prime Minister.

Declaring himself "delighted" with the state of UK-India relations, Mr Cameron said: "It's been a successful visit. There's been really good progress on lots of the economic, trade and commercial ties."

He and Mr Singh had "a very good, detailed, strategic conversation" on a number of foreign policy and security issues, he said.

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