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April 13 Marks 100 Years Since One Of the Worst Massacres Of The British Empire

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Today in Parliament, British Prime Minister Theresa May expressed regret but stopped short of an apology for one of the worst massacres of the British Empire. One hundred years ago this Saturday, a British general gave an order to open fire on thousands of unarmed civilians in India, which was then ruled by the British. NPR's Lauren Frayer traveled to the exact spot where it happened - a park in the northern city of Amritsar.

(SOUNDBITE OF PARK AMBIENCE)

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: It's a bustling city park, families having picnics under trees, birds chirping, and then you start to notice something different about Jallianwala Bagh - a brick wall with bullet holes in it. And there's a little plaque that says 1,650 rounds were fired, and it says these were fired into the crowd by the order of General Dyer.

AMANDEEP BAL: Every Indian knows about General Dyer.

FRAYER: His name is seared on India's painful colonial past, says historian Amandeep Bal. On April 13, 1919, General Reginald Dyer, a British army commander, responded to the scene of what he thought was an unauthorized gathering at Jallianwala Bagh, or park.

BAL: One hundred years ago, it was just an open space. General Dyer - he blocked the entrance, stationed his troops and immediately started firing.

FRAYER: No warning.

BAL: No warning - nothing.

FRAYER: The British identified nearly 400 dead, but there was a curfew. Families were frightened to go out and collect the bodies. Locals put the death toll at about 1,500, maybe more.

BAL: It definitely changed the mindset of the people. There were many who had full faith in the British sense of justice. Even they lost that faith.

FRAYER: Among them, a certain freedom campaigner named Mohandas Gandhi.

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED FILM)

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character, vocalizing).

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) Jallianwala Bagh.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) Jallianwala Bagh.

FRAYER: Bollywood films have dramatized the tragedy. It's a big part of how Indians tell their freedom story.

(CROSSTALK)

FRAYER: In an artist's workshop a few hundred yards from Jallianwala Bagh, elderly brothers chant a prayer for the dead.

UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Foreign language spoken).

FRAYER: The Singh family are painters. On their workshop wall is a drawing by the family prodigy, a 15-year-old boy gunned down 100 years ago. Surinder Singh, now 82, is his nephew.

SURINDER SINGH: (Through interpreter) My grandfather was heartbroken. He lost his son and also a dedicated worker, his apprentice. Our family has kept all of his original drawings.

FRAYER: Singh keeps newspaper clippings about the massacre. General Dyer was relieved of command but never jailed. He died in England of natural causes, and no one ever apologized to the Singh family.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: A moment of silence as David Cameron becomes the first sitting British prime minister to visit the site.

FRAYER: Not even when then-British Prime Minister David Cameron visited Jallianwala Bagh in 2013. But some U.K. lawmakers of Indian descent are lobbying for an apology now. The problem, says historian Kim Wagner, is how to word it.

KIM WAGNER: You can say, oh, yes, we acknowledge there was the Amritsar massacre, but that was really a fluke event and General Dyer is a rogue officer, which is basically what David Cameron said in 2013 when he visited.

FRAYER: But Wagner says it was no fluke. The massacre reveals how scared British rulers were of their subjects, how unequal they were and how unfair the Empire had become.

WAGNER: No British government would ever apologize for the system of colonialism. They would only ever conceivably apologize for Dyer's actions.

FRAYER: The kind of apology that might help people heal here, Wagner says, is not the kind Britain might be willing to make. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, at Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, India. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.