This is a personal account by an Amritsar resident who is a history enthusiast and student of Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi. The writer has also visited the Jallianwala Bagh numerous times before the renovation, and once after.
The renovation of the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar has opened old wounds rather than enhancing the historic value of a memorial built to honour the hundreds of people who were slaughtered here by Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer on 13th April 1919.
The large-scale renovation, announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019, was pegged at Rs 100 crore. Instead of adding value to the memorial, the central government has been accused of ‘Disneyfying’ the bagh, turning a solemn memorial into a flashy tourist attraction that now resembles an amusement park. Why, some visitors are even wondering whether they might have to buy tickets to enter the site, which now boasts a tasteless sound-and-light show and embellishments that appear to have desecrated the memory of the martyrs who perished here.
The renovation plan had been announced by Modi on 13th April 2019, on the centenary of the massacre. The contract had been awarded to a private firm, which was to complete it by the end of the centenary year. However, the Covid19 pandemic delayed its completion and the refurbished memorial was unveiled only a few days ago.
– To the horror of the nation, the renovated bagh was seen as an “insult to the martyrs”, and it evoked strong protests from many quarters.
The backlash on social media was swift. For instance, historian S Irfan Habib and Kim A Wagner, a London-based history professor and author of a book titled Amritsar 1919 – An Empire of Fear And The Making of a Massacre (2019), tweeted in protest. Opposition leaders in India, such as former Congress President Rahul Gandhi and Communist Party of India (Marxist) leader Sitaram Yechury too voiced their displeasure at the new-look Jallianwala Bagh.
There are those, however, who point out that the blueprints of the renovation had been released by a trustee of the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial Trust, Bharatiya Janata Party MP Shwait Malik, at a press conference before work on the memorial began. Why weren’t objections raised then, they ask.
Regardless of the political colour being given to the renovation, let us tour the historic bagh and see for ourselves. But before we start, here’s a brief recap of the incidents that took place here on 13th April 1919.
The Jallianwala Bagh massacre was orchestrated by Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer when a large crowd assembled in the open ground to celebrate the festival of Baisakhi. They were also there to protest the arrest of two Indian nationalist leaders, Dr Saifuddin Kitchlu and Dr Satya Pal.
After hundreds of Indians assembled at the bagh, Dyer surrounded it with his troops and ordered them to open fire till their ammunition was exhausted. The only exit was a narrow passage through which the bagh could be accessed, and the troops had blocked it. This resulted in a massive stampede.
After Independence, the Jallianwala Bagh was turned into a national memorial in the 1950s. The Congress government had restored the site while preserving its sanctity and turning it into a place where visitors could pay homage to the martyrs who had died in the tragedy.
Let us stroll through the bagh for a before-after experience of this historic site.
Walk towards Heritage Street and you will arrive at the Jallianwala Bagh before turning right, a route that takes you to the Harmandir Sahib popularly called the Golden Temple. Although the main street is now 100 feet wide to welcome tourists from across the globe, it was no more than 7-8 feet wide when the massacre took place.
That is why, on that fateful day, Dyer had to park his car at Chowk Fawara, around 100 meters from the bagh. He had a machine gun mounted in his car, and since he couldn’t drive right up to the bagh, the tight lanes of the city prevented an even bigger tragedy!
Entrances To The Bagh: In those times, Jallianwala Bagh was an irregular, open piece of land. It was surrounded by houses on all sides and was accessed through a few odd passages that connected it to the main road, apart from two lanes, on the south and east.
Dyer and his troops entered through the then 4-foot-wide southern lane and took up position, blocking both the main entrances. This southern entrance is today the main entrance to the bagh complex, one of the focal points of the current controversy.
This historic lane, which was earlier known as the ‘Martyrs Lane’, has been rechristened ‘Heritage Lane’ and drastically altered. Earlier, it was a simple, narrow lane through which visitors could easily visualize how the events of that fateful day had unfolded. Post-renovation, the passage is covered by a wooden railing and bears murals of men and women on both sides, along with fancy lighting and light background music!
A century ago, the lane was so narrow that troops could easily block it and prevent people who were trapped inside from escaping. This maximized the deaths during the massacre. Tragically, the renovation has given this ‘Heritage Lane’ the look and feel of a modern theme park.
Amar Jyoti Shifted: Also, pre-renovation, the first thing one encountered inside the bagh was the Amar Jyoti (Flame of Liberty) inaugurated by President of India, Dr Rajendra Prasad, in 1961. On the four sides of the square platform of the memorial, the words ‘In memory of martyrs – 13 April 1919’ were inscribed in Hindi, Punjabi, Urdu and English.
The platform has been shifted, perhaps to clear the large area and leave it as an open space. It is an insult to the martyrs that fell to Dyer’s bullets.
If one retraces one’s steps through ‘Heritage Lane’, one reaches the point from where Dyer had ordered his troops to take up position. There used to be a small platform there, indicating the point from where his troops had started shooting. The platform has been removed and the spot is now marked by information inscribed on a tile in the ground.
The line of troops extended to the eastern lane of the bagh, near the Ibn Khalifa Mosque. This lane, which is not often mentioned, opens out onto the road towards the Shri Guru Ram Das Ji Niwas, the rest house of the Harmandir Sahib. However, now it serves as the main exit from the complex.
Dyer strategically covered both main exit points so that people inside the bagh could not escape when his troops opened fire. The only other exit points were the extremely narrow alleys between the houses on all sides of the bagh, through which thousands couldn't flee during a stampede.
Near the eastern end of the bagh, an open-air amphitheatre was constructed a decade ago to perform plays and organize functions relating to the Jallianwala Bagh tragedy. This platform too has been cleared away and in its place are pillars on which the names of the martyrs have been inscribed.
Move a little to the left and one will see a new fountain, which has replaced an earlier fountain that stood in its place. It is said that on the day of the massacre, a chabeel, or free water stall, was set up by the boys of a local Sikh orphanage to cater to the people who had assembled in the bagh for the Baisakhi event.
Although impossible to confirm, many say that one of the boys was Udham Singh, who years later, avenged the death of the martyrs by assassinating the then governor of Punjab, Michael O'Dwyer, in Caxton Hall in London in 1940. Udham Singh was later hanged.
Galleries Replace Museums: Near this new fountain are three covered galleries that tell the story of the massacre. They have replaced a museum which too told the story of the tragedy. But the pictures have been ‘updated’ while murals and modern designs have been added, replacing the solemn ambience with a cold, state-of-the-art look.
Historic Well: Nearby is a historic well that predated the massacre. Since it was level with the ground and had no walls above-ground, around 120 people fell into it and were crushed to death in the stampede that accompanied the shooting.
After Independence, when the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial Act, 1951, was passed, walls were constructed on the sides of the well and it was also covered. Following the current renovation, the well is unrecognizable. It has been painted red, apparently to give it a ‘historic look’.
Earlier, there were small openings in the walls of the well through which one could look down, into it. The top of the well was covered by glass sheets to prevent people from throwing coins inside, a tradition common to Indians when they visit any holy reservoir or well.
Behind the well, several houses had been purchased by the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial Trust. If there was a true intent to document the history of the tragedy, these could have been used to house libraries or museums. They have been left unused despite the renovation.
A Mother’s Samadhi: Opposite the well is an unmarked monument, which just like the well, was present in the bagh before the massacre. This is the samadhi or memorial of the mother of Sardar Sant Prakash Singh, the first Sikh Inspector-General of Police of Punjab.
Despite the massive changes to the bagh, no one thought to add a signboard to the samadh, to tell its story. Visitors have been confusing it with the deaths in the tragedy and have been paying homage to it! A simple signboard would have cleared up the confusion.
Central Pylon: Now turn back to the main street and you’re on the central vista of the bagh. The ground around this vista has been raised and a garden path has been built along its border. The highlight of the vista is the central pylon, which for many is the focal point of the national monument.
The design for the pylon was approved in 1956 from hundreds of designs submitted by architects from India and abroad. It had been jointly prepared by Delhi-based architect T R Mahendra and an American named Benjamin Polk, both leading architects working in Delhi at the time. Construction of the memorial began in November 1957 and was completed in a few years.
Although the pylon has been left untouched, post-renovation, every evening, a half-hour light-and-sound show is projected onto it. Worse, the movie which plays during the show focuses on the background of the tragedy rather than on the events that unfolded on that terrible day.
Erasing The Congress: In doing so, the film eclipses the role of the Indian National Congress, the then ruling political party, and the role it played in the historic events at the Jallianwala Bagh. It was the Congress, currently an Opposition political party, which had organized the assembly of people at the bagh on 13th April 1919, and which also contributed to preserving the monument after Independence.
But the Congress is not entirely blameless. At the beginning of the centenary of the massacre, while the Centre announced its Rs 100-crore renovation plan, the Congress government in Punjab announced a contribution of Rs 20 crore towards the budget, even though the bagh is a national memorial and it had nothing to do with it.
‘Another’ Memorial: Then, Punjab Chief Minister Amarinder Singh inaugurated ‘another’ memorial to the Jallianwala martyrs, at Anand Amrit Park in the city, two weeks before Modi unveiled the refurbished Jallianwala Bagh. The project had irked BJP leaders including Rajya Sabha MP and Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial Trust member Shwait Malik, who said that building another memorial just 5 km from the place of the massacre was unfair.
Although the controversy revolves around the physical changes to the memorial site, other aspects are not being talked about. Amritsar-based historian Surinder Kochhar, who has researched the Jallianwala Bagh for more than 20 years, says, “When such a large sum was allotted for the renovation, the government could have spent some of it on research as a tribute to the fallen people.”
Critics have thus pointed out that no political party appears interested in paying tribute to the martyrs; all they are focused on are political gains.
More Research: Of course, that does not excuse what the central government is trying to pass off as renovation of a national memorial. Kochhar believes that the current renovation has ignored the many aspects of the massacre that are still unknown. For instance, he says, no one knows exactly how many people were killed and where the families of many of the deceased are today. Accessing records could answer many of these questions but the Indian government would have to open a dialogue with the British government. “If we’re unable to do justice to the history of the monument, none of these embellishments counts,” he says.
Kochhar points out that the Jallianwala Bagh renovations don’t include any local architectural elements and are more about fancy decorations which make the site appear like an amusement park. It has robbed the memorial of its ability to remind us of the act of cruelty that was perpetrated here.
It is unlikely that the controversy will die down any time soon. But it does raise genuine questions about the state of our heritage and its reinterpretation for future generations.