Britain's Cameron to voice regret for colonial Indian massacre

NEW DELHI (REUTERS) - Mr David Cameron will on Wednesday become the first serving prime minister to voice regret about one of the British Empire's bloodiest episodes in India and will lay a wreath at Amritsar, scene of a notorious massacre of unarmed civilians.

The 1919 slaughter, known in India as the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, was described by Mahatma Gandhi, father of the Indian independence movement, as having shaken the foundations of the British Empire. A group of soldiers opened fire on an unarmed crowd without warning in the northern Indian city after a period of unrest, killing hundreds in cold blood.

Mr Cameron's visit and expression of regret for what happened will stop short of an apology, but he will make it clear he considers the episode a stain on Britain's history that should be acknowledged. The gesture, coming on the third and final day of a visit to India aimed at drumming up trade and investment, is likely to be seen as an attempt to improve relations with Britain's former colonial possession and to court around 1.5 million British voters of Indian origin ahead of a 2015 election.

Before his visit, Mr Cameron said there were ties of history between the two countries, "both the good and the bad".

"In Amritsar, I want to take the opportunity to pay my respects at Jallianwala Bagh," he said, referring to the site of the massacre. Mr Cameron is expected to visit Amritsar's Golden Temple, a place of pilgrimage for Sikhs, and to inscribe his thoughts about the killings in the visitor book.

When asked to comment on Britain's colonial past, he said: "I would argue it's a strength, not a weakness. Of course there are sensitive issues, sensitive events, but actually the fact that Britain and India have this history, have a shared culture and a shared language, I think, is a positive."

The British report into the Amritsar massacre at the time said 379 people were killed and 1,200 wounded, but a separate inquiry commissioned by the Indian pro-independence movement said around 1,000 people were killed.

Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer, the man who gave the order to fire, explained his decision by saying he felt it was necessary to "teach a moral lesson to the Punjab". Some in Britain hailed him "as the man who saved India", but others condemned him. India became independent in 1947.