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Religion, history, business: All in Cameron's Amritsar trip

Chandigarh, Feb 20 (IANS) British Prime Minister David Cameron was a devout, a politician regretting a historical tragedy and a business leader -- all rolled into one within a space of four hours during his visit to Sikh holy city Amritsar Wednesday.

Cameron became the first prime minister of Britain, the highest democratically elected leader of that country, to finally step into the Jallianwala Bagh memorial in the congested walled city of Amritsar.

Hundreds of innocent and unarmed men, women and children were massacred at the Jallianwala Bagh April 13, 1919 by British forces led by Brigadier General Reginald Dyer. The victims had no place to escape as the only narrow entrance was blocked by soldiers. Colonial era records had put the toll at around 400 while leaders of the country's freedom movement had put it at over 1,000.

On Wednesday, Cameron walked through the same narrow pathway, painted in pale saffron colour, to bow his head and pay homage to hundreds who were killed inside.

"This was a deeply shameful act in British history. One that Winston Churchill rightly described at that time as monstrous. We must never forget what happened here and we must ensure that the UK stands up for the right of peaceful protests," Cameron wrote in the visitors' book of the memorial.

However, Cameron, who placed a wreath and even took off his shoes at the memorial, did not offer any apology for the massacre.

Queen Elizabeth too had visited the Jallianwala Bagh memorial in October 1997 and had paid homage to those killed.

Cameron also went around the holiest of Sikh shrines, Harmandar Sahib, popularly known as Golden Temple, as a devout amid tight security.

Covering his head with a navy blue scarf, Cameron could be seen keenly observing and listening to the details about the shrine from the octogenarian Punjab chief minister Parkash Singh Badal, Shiromani Gurdwara Parbandhak Committee (SGPC) president Avtar Singh Makkar and other officials.

Inside the sanctum sanctorum, Cameron bowed his head with folded hands and was presented a 'Siropa', a traditional, religious honour, by the shrine priests. He greeted people with a smile and folded hands and observed the all-gold shrine roof and walls inside.

Cameron also went inside the 'Langar' (community kitchen) hall, where over 100,000 people partake food in a single busy day, inside the Golden Temple complex and did symbolic kar sewa (voluntary work).

Acknowledging the visit of British prime minister to the Golden Temple, radical Sikh group Dal Khalsa said the visit "will put Sikhs on the world map, catching the attention of the world community and thereby creating more understanding of the Sikh community".

Britain is home to thousands of immigrants, Sikhs and Punjabis, who have strong Punjab connections and his visit would certainly please them.

At the end of his visit to the Sikh holy city, Cameron went to the factory of the Lal Qila basmati rice brand, which is exported to Britain and other countries and is quite famous there.

Jaideep Sarin

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