The massacre at Jallianwala in Amritsar was a turning point in India’s history and the bagh or maidan (open ground) where the killing of around 500 unarmed Indians took place is one of the most visited sites in Amritsar. Hundreds of thousands of people visit the memorial as a mark of respect for those who perished in the horrific massacre that took place there on 13th April 1919.
But while the story of the massacre and the events that followed are well known, few know that the bagh where Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer had ordered his troops to open fire on the unarmed Indians assembled there, narrowly escaped being obliterated and turned into a cloth market.
Jallianwala Bagh: How It Got Its Name
Amritsar-based historian Surinder Kochhar in his book Amritsar – Arambh Ton Ajj Tak (May 2010) says that what we know as ‘Jallianwala Bagh’ today was originally a privately-owned open ground measuring 229 metres x 283 metres. It belonged to Himmat Singh, a resident of Mahilpur town in the present-day Hoshiarpur district of Punjab.
Kochhar says that Himmat Singh was a courtier in the service of Jaswant Singh (r. 1783-1840), the Raja of Nabha. He also served as the ‘Vakil’ of Maharaja Ranjit Singh of Punjab, who granted him the jagir (land grant) of Jallewal village (today in Tarn Taran district in Punjab).
– Adding ‘Jallewal’ as a suffix to his last name, Himmat Singh also established a katra or a neighbourhood near the Harmandir Sahib (Golden Temple) in Amritsar, a locality that was named after him.
There isn’t enough information about the later life of Himmat Singh and his death, and he soon disappeared from public memory, and all that remained to remember him by was the large open plot inside the katra that he founded. It was called ‘Jallewal Bagh’ (after Himmat Singh and the suffix he had adopted), till locals started pronouncing it as ‘Jallianwala Bagh’.
Until the massacre of 1919, Jallianwala Bagh was an open space that was largely ignored. It was not a maidan in the truest sense and certainly not a bagh or a ‘garden’ either. Rather, it was an irregular quadrangle of uneven ground that was walled in some parts. In other parts, the backs of houses that had encroached right up to it defined its boundary. A part of the bagh was even used as a dumping ground!
At the time of the massacre in 1919, the bagh had a narrow entrance. Inside, there was the samadh or memorial of the mother of Sardar Sant Prakash Singh, the first Sikh Inspector-General of Police of Punjab. Near the memorial were a few date palms and other tall trees. Also, there was a dry well and a few huts, in which dhobis or washermen lived. The narrow entrance, the samadh and well survive to this day.
Apart from two demonstrations held here as a protest against the Rowlatt Act by the Indian National Congress and local businessmen on 23rd March and 6th April 1919, no major event had ever taken place in the bagh before.
And thus on that fateful day, one of the most tragic events in Indian history – the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre – would take place. Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer led his troops through the narrow lane that led to this nondescript ground, and they opened fire on the thousands of unarmed Indians who had gathered in the bagh on the occasion of Baisakhi, the harvest festival of Punjab. Among the crowd were nationalists who had come to oppose the repressive policies of the colonial British government.
After General Dyer gave the order to fire, his troops started shooting and they didn’t stop for 15 minutes. Official accounts say that 500 Indians were killed. Other accounts say that more than double that number were gunned down. In the stampede that followed, many fell into the well. This once forgettable bagh, its walls now riddled with bullets and earth soaked in the blood of innocent Indians, was suddenly immortalised.
Plan to Wipe Out Memory of the Massacre
In the months before the incident, Punjab was turning into a hub of revolutionary activities due to the enormous protests taking place here against the Rowlatt Acts of the British government. Amritsar was thus being considered as the venue of the Indian National Congress’s 1919 National Session.
In early 1919, senior Congress leader Madan Mohan Malaviya had asked Sashti Charan Mukherjee, a homoeopath from Allahabad, to visit Amritsar and scout for a suitable venue for the party’s session to be held later that year.
Mukherjee was not only in the city in the run-up to the massacre on 13th April 1919, but being a Congress leader he also got to be on the stage in the bagh on that very day, along with the other VIPs and organizers. They had left the ground before the killings took place. Later that year, Amritsar host the Congress’s session, on 25th December 1919, at the city’s Aitchison Park (today ‘Gol Bagh’ for its circular layout).
Mukherjee’s family says that there was talk among Indians that the British government wanted to turn the bagh into a cloth market, to obliterate any reminder of the massacre by one of their own. The British felt that if the bagh survived, it would ignite nationalist sentiments among Indians like never before.
Although the British never openly admitted their intentions, Mukherjee who was in the city since then and was examining the situation must have realised that the plan wasn’t any hearsay but the government was acute with it. It was thus, the Congress was determined to do anything to save this bagh which was the living memory of the massacre.
To foil any plans the government may have had for the bagh, the Congress along with passing several national level demands, passed a resolution to construct a memorial at the site. Mahatma Gandhi issued an appeal for donations and a trust was set up with Madan Mohan Malaviya as its President and Sashti Charan Mukherjee as its Secretary.
The Congress announced a national subscription for the memorial and through crowd-funding, Rs 9.35 lakh was raised. Of this, Rs 5.65 lakh was spent on purchasing the bagh from its 34 individual owners, who had acquired different portions of it. Even though the British government refused to allow the construction of a memorial, the bagh was revered as sacred to the freedom struggle and national leaders would visit it at regular intervals to pay homage to those who had died and some would even collect the ‘sacred clay’ of bagh with them as a token of respect.
Independence and After
In 1947, Independence cleared the way for a memorial to be built, and as a first step, under the leadership of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial Act 1951, was passed.
– It was the first monument in the country to be built under an Act of Parliament.
The Act provided for a national memorial to be built in memory of those killed or wounded on 13th April 1919, in Jallianwala Bagh, Amritsar. It also created a trust to manage the memorial. With Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru as Chairperson, the other members of the trust were Saifuddin Kitchlew and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad as lifelong members; the Minister in charge of Culture, Government of India; Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, Governor of Punjab; Chief Minister of Punjab and three eminent persons nominated by the central government.
Since the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial Committee was set up by the Congress before Independence, the Nehru government assigned permanent membership of the trust to the President of the Indian National Congress along with the other members mentioned above. Regardless of the Act, Sashti Charan Mukherjee continued to serve as Secretary of Jallianwala Bagh.
It took a few years to find a suitable design for the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial, from the thousands submitted by Indian and foreign architects. Finally, in 1956, the design was finalized. It had been jointly prepared by Delhi-based architect T R Mahendra and an American named Benjamin Polk, leading architects working in Delhi at the time. Construction of the memorial began in November 1957 and was completed in a few years. It was to cost Rs 9.25 lakh.
First, the bagh had to be filled in to raise the ground by over 5 feet, to bring it to level with the road outside. Four big stone lanterns flank the central pylon that rises 30 feet. The pylon is composed of 300 stones with the Ashoka Chakra carved on each of them. The pylon has been built in such a way that it looks like a flame from all directions.
Fourteen small lanterns scattered across the site provide soft lighting. Columns in front of the ‘flame’ are symbolic of soldiers standing, and in front of the ‘flame’ is a semi-circle to indicate the formation of the soldiers who fired on the crowd. A swimming pool for children was built to the right of the pylon but it is in a state of neglect today.
The Amar Jyoti (Flame of Liberty,) was inaugurated by the then 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.
In the 2000s, a photo gallery and a sound-and-light show were set up inside the entrance of the complex. The show was soon wound up.
Then, in 2016, a white stone statue constructed in the form of flame with the faces of the victims carved as motifs was erected outside the bagh, as part of the Heritage Street Project, which was completed in 2016 to reconstruct the historic street which passed through Town Hall, Jallinawala Bagh and Golden Temple. The statue also has a flame and the names of those killed in the massacre inscribed on the platform beneath it. In 2018 a 10-foot-tall marble statue of Udham Singh was inaugurated at the entrance of the bagh by members of the Kamboj community, to which Udham Singh belonged.
Singh was the revolutionary who had shot dead Sir Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab when the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre took place. He had vowed to avenge the various atrocities that happened in Punjab during 1919 and shot O’Dwyer in London, 21 years after the tragedy in Amritsar. Four months later, on 31st July 1940, Udham Singh was executed by the British for assassinating O'Dwyer.
In 2019, the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party government at the Centre passed the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial (Amendment) Bill 2019 in Parliament, to amend the 1951 Act. The amended bill includes a provision to remove the President of the Indian National Congress as a permanent Trustee. It also clarifies that when there is no Leader of the Opposition in the Lok Sabha, the leader of the single largest Opposition party will become a Trustee.
During the 100th anniversary of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre in 2019, the Indian government initiated the redevelopment of this national monument, which is expected to be thrown open to the public very soon. But one thing is certain, refurbishment of the memorial notwithstanding, the grief and tales of the sacrifice of innocent souls live on in the hearts of all Indians.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aashish Kochhar is a history enthusiast from Amritsar who studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.