Peter Popham - New Delhi
18 August 1997
Despite a demand for apologies, a controversy over socks and a frank attempt at dissuasion by the Indian Prime Minister, the Queen may still visit the Sikh religion's holy of holies during the royal tour of India in October.
Amritsar in the Punjab, close to the border with Pakistan, is the site of the Golden Temple, the holiest temple of Sikhism. Its rich and tragic history, and the large Sikh community in the United Kingdom, make it a natural choice for the royal itinerary.
But Amritsar is also where one of the worst atrocities in the history of British India took place, when on 13 April 1919 a platoon of British infantry fired into a crowd of peaceable demonstrators, killing at least 372 people and injuring 1,200. In the aftermath, Gandhi initiated the civil disobedience campaign which was so important in precipitating the end of British rule.
Last month, Professor Jagmohan Singh, the nephew of an Indian freedom fighter hanged by the British for murder in 1931, demanded that the Queen should take advantage of her Indian trip to apologize for the massacre, particularly if she visits Amritsar. Without endorsing this demand, the Indian Prime Minister, Inder Kumar Gujral, referred to it obliquely in a report in a British Sunday newspaper when he urged the Queen to cross Amritsar off her itinerary. "We have suggested as a government to the British that it would be much better if she doesn't visit Amritsar," he was quoted as saying. "Particularly when such issues [that is, the question of an apology] have been raised."
As the Queen and her representatives are not in the custom of going around apologizing for things - the Prince of Wales at the Hong Kong handover, for example, was notably uneloquent about the British contribution to China's historic opium problem - a possible compromise has been suggested, whereby the Queen would also visit the site of the Amritsar massacre, Jallianwalla Bagh Memorial Park.
A spokeswoman for the British High Commission in New Delhi confirmed that a reconnaissance team from Buckingham Palace had visited both the Golden Temple and the memorial park. She said: "Amritsar was one of the possible venues for the visit that was put into the programme because both the Indian and the British governments thought it would be a good thing." The final decision had yet to be taken.
The Sikh clergy have made it clear that if the Queen's visit to the Golden Temple goes ahead, they will bend over backwards to make her comfortable. At most religious sites in the East one has to remove shoes; at the Golden Temple the socks have to go, too, and feet have to be washed in the pool. By special dispensation, however, the Queen will be spared this indignity, providing only that she changes into a fresh pair of socks that have been laundered since their previous contact with leather. She will also be allowed to keep her usual hat on.
Sikh dissenters, complaining of a "colonial hangover" at the top of the organization, point out that prime ministers, presidents and even the Mogul emperor Akbar all entered the temple barefoot.
This will be the Queen's first visit to India in 14 years, and her first extensive tour since 1961. In Delhi she will find that the splendid canopy that once sheltered a huge statue of George V is still empty: after Independence, the statue was removed to the desolation of Coronation Park, in the far north of the capital, where almost everyone has forgotten about its existence.