Jallianwala Bagh – Revamping or Ravaging History?

Jallianwala Bagh is not just the name of a physical location, a precinct, but it has become symbolic of something that altered the course of history. The warm colours of life and its events fade into the sepia of distant memory after 102 years, but this is not the case with Jallianwala Bagh. The deafening cries of our fellow Indians still resonates in that place reminding each Indian of the ultimate sacrifice made by those who laid down their lives there. The bullet holes in the Jallianwala Bagh walls are a vivid reminder of the misery unleashed by General Dyer, which continues to tear through the soul of Indians to this day. Survivors of one of history’s largest denials of human rights have revealed brutal and horrific images of the event. Still at the heart of Jallianwala Bagh lies a narrative of Sikhs, Hindus and Muslims uniting against colonialism and tyranny during one of India’s darkest periods in history.

The revamping of this historic site has drawn widespread condemnation from throughout the world and why should it not ? Rebuilding or remodeling the site on the line of Disney Land is definitely not preservation. Jallianwala Bagh is a mourning ground, not a stage for a light and sound performance. The whole point of keeping the place in its original, bleak state was to remind us of the atrocities committed there. Historians have criticised the move, claiming that beautifying the site will obliterate memory of the tragic day. Authors, historians and survivors are working tirelessly to create virtual projects modelled after colonial atrocities to address the fear erasure and here we are seeing history being faded out rightly. Visitors to Jallianwala Bagh should expect to feel sorrow and misery, but the government has turned the sad historic site into a tourist attraction with decorations and a light display.

The Jallianwala Bagh Massacre occurred during India’s pre-independence agitation and was a watershed moment. The event occurred in April 1919, during a period when the British were facing large protests in Punjab over the Rowlatt Act, which allowed them to arrest individuals without a warrant or a trial. Sir Michel O’ Dwyer declared martial law in Lahore and Amritsar on April 11, but the order did not reach Amritsar until April 14. Indian nationalists assembled at the venue to peacefully oppose British martial law in favour of a free, democratic India and against the arrest of Dr Satyapal and Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew. April 13, 1919 also happened to be Baisakhi which is a Sikh harvest festival and Punjab happens to have the highest population of Sikhs in the country. When he learned of the big gathering, Dyer stormed into Jallianwala Bagh through the now-renovated tunnel, the sole access entry and exit point, and ordered his soldiers to open fire on the mob. The troops continued to fire until they ran out of ammo. As per the British, 376 people were murdered in the shooting, with the youngest being 9 years old and the oldest being 80 years old. However, the death toll is estimated to be 1,000 by Indian historians.

Mahatma Gandhi renounced the title of Kaiser-i-Hind, which the British conferred on him for his service during the Boer War after the incident. An excerpt from a letter Rabindranath Tagore sent to the British Viceroy, surrendering his knighthood in protest over the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, helps us comprehend the grief and hurt people felt – “The time has come when badges of honour make our shame glaring in their incongruous context of humiliation, and I for my part wish to stand, shorn of all special distinctions , by the side of those of my countrymen, who, for their so-called insignificance, are liable to suffer a degradation not fit for a human being”.

The walls of the very same lane by which the troops led by General Dyer reached the area have been completely transformed as part of the Jallianwala Bagh’s renovation. The tiny lane made of ‘Nanakshahi bricks’ earlier had remained undisturbed for over a century. The alley has now taken on the appearance of a partially enclosed tunnel with new shiny floors. The demonstrators who marched through the alley but were besieged by Dyer and his soldiers are now shown in gleaming murals on the walls on both sides of the tiny lane. An opaque glass barrier has been erected around the Martyrs’ Well also known as the Shahidi Khu, a water hole where dozens of people perished after plunging in to rescue themselves. The firing site has been substituted with a stone carving that reads “people were fired from here,” as well as figurines of British army soldiers aiming  at a whitewashed wall. This is history being whitewashed, and it must be opposed at all means. Future generations will find it difficult to identify to that period in India’s history as a result of the restoration.

Historians and specialists all around the world strive to preserve the texture, colour, feel etc of historic sites, but in India, we prefer to literally make a Jhaaki out of everything. The sad reality is that theme parks are being built in places of historical and cultural significance. The government has transformed the memorial into a glitzy sight which does not considers history seriously, rather than it being a solemn tribute for those who died in the egregious tragedy. According to Irfan Habib, an eminent historian the move is a “corporatisation of monuments,” that has been done “at the cost of history, cost of heritage”. A British historian, Kim A Wagner, writer of the book “Jallianwala Bagh” said the revamping of the place meant “that the last traces of the event have effectively been erased”. Professor and historian at JNU , Chaman Lal said that “People visiting Jallianwala Bagh should go with a sense of pain and anguish, They have now tried to make it a space for enjoying, with a beautiful garden. It was not a beautiful garden.” This repair activity has also sparked outrage on social media. The restoration has also become a flashpoint for political squabbles, with politicians such as Rahul Gandhi and Sitaram Yechury accusing the government of “insulting” the Jallianwala Bagh martyrs.

Architecture has the ability to evoke a sense of remembrance, but it should not necessarily be comfortable. It must be contextualised. The anguish was palpable, the loss was significant, and the tragedy was memorable. Places elicit emotion and act as a reminder of what we’ve lost and what we’ve fought for. The Jallianwala Bagh is synonymous with these feelings of despair, misery, and anguish. The Jallianwala Bagh also serves as a reminder of the phrase “never gain.” A light sound display frequently glamorises and romanticises  the historical past, making it unsuitable for a monument—especially for monetary reasons. The lane informed them of individuals who had previously entered but were unable to exit. These lanes imitate the horrors of the that day by replicating the cramped conditions in which individuals were confined. Destroying the final remnants of Jallianwala Bagh has assured that no portion of the site remains as it once was, prompting justifiable accusations that it has harmed our heritage. Alas,”Somethings are best left untouched”.

– Uttara Jantwal

Picture Credits: / AFP


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