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Jallianwala Bagh : Renovation, not restoration

A. J. Philip A. J. Philip
06 Sep 2021
Weekly Magazine In India

Pardon me if you find it objectionable when I say that we Indians do not have a sense of history or archaeology. We are good storytellers, as we have the most imaginative minds. No other country or people come anywhere near our capacity for story-telling and passing on such stories from generation to generation.

Some of our great works of literature and religion came to us through this process of story-telling. Over a period of time, these stories were embellished as sub-stories were added to make the stories absolutely breath-taking. Let me not go into the specifics, lest they should be found objectionable.

About one and half decades ago, I visited the Bhakra dam, near Nangal in Punjab. I knew that the dam was inaugurated when Pattom Thanu Pillai was the Governor of Punjab. I also knew that Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru had taken his Chinese counterpart Chou-en-Lai there to show him the temple of technology India had built on the river Sutlej. 

I was served lunch at the Nangal guest house. The caretaker showed me the plates in which the two prime ministers were served food. I wanted to see the place where they sat and discussed what came to be known as the Panchsheel doctrine or the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence.

I was taken to the spot where a glass room had been built. Inside the room was a new, white upholstered sofa set. The room was locked with a padlock. The Tribune correspondent at Nangal was so influential that he got it opened for me. On questioning, the caretaker told me that the sofa was new and the two PMs had sat on ordinary chairs.

“Since the chairs were unimpressive, one of the officials got them removed from the place and a new sofa set was placed there.” I was shocked by his answer but he did not find anything amiss in the makeover.

I remembered my visit to Potsdam, near East Berlin, where the victorious Allies decided to split Berlin into East and West Berlins at the end of the Second World War in 1945. The hall where Stalin and Churchill, among others, met and redrew the map of Europe remained closed with the same wooden chairs and table intact inside.

No, they did not change the chairs or the table or introduce any new modern gadgets there because they had a sense of history unlike the babus of Nangal. I remembered this incident when I read about the “restoration”, nay “renovation”, that the Jallianwala Bagh memorial underwent recently.

Before that, with due respect to my Sikh friends, let me ask them a question. How does the Sri Harmandir Sahib, known popularly as the Golden Temple, differ from other gurdwaras like the one in New Delhi or the several in Punjab, Haryana, Maharashtra and Himachal Pradesh? Yes, it is larger and has a canopy made of the yellow metal.

Otherwise, all the gurdwaras look alike for they all have a white marble coating. Sri Harmandir Sahib was not like that. It was built with what was called Nanak Shahi bricks, flat thin red-coloured burnt clay bricks. Over the bricks were laid the marble slabs depriving it of its distinct, I would say, majestic identity.

To return to Jallianwala Bagh, no other incident in colonial India turned the people against the British, as the Amritsar massacre as it was known. It happened 102 years ago when General R.E.H. Dyer ordered his men to fire at the unarmed people who had assembled at Jallianwala Bagh, a stone’s throw from the Sri Harmandir Sahib on Baisakhi day. 

Accounts of the massacre in which 379 were killed and about 1200 injured continue to have a chilling effect on the people. Today, the massacre is once again in the public conscience, unfortunately, for the wrong reasons. That the Modi government had a plan of its own up its sleeves was evident when it made amendments in the Jallianwala Bagh Act.

After the massacre, a Trust was first set up by the then Congress president Motilal Nehru, father of Jawaharlal Nehru in 1920. After independence, the government brought forward the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial Act, 1951, which made then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, Dr. Saifuddin Kitchlew and Maulana Abul Kalam Azad as life-long members. 

The other trustees were the Congress president, and the Punjab Chief Minister and Governor, and three members to be nominated by the government. As the Congress president is no longer a member, Sonia Gandhi lost her position in the Trust which is now totally controlled by Modi.

On August 28, 2021, the Prime Minister dedicated to the nation the new Jallianwala Bagh memorial. Four new galleries, a lotus pond, a new memorial column and a sound and light show were added to make Jallianwala Bagh a true “Garden”, to be visited by tourists in large numbers. It was like replacing the old chairs with a new sofa set at Nangal.

In doing so, what the authorities concerned have presented to the nation is a renovated, not a restored, Bagh. The fact of the matter is that the Bagh, which literally means garden, was never a garden like the Shalimar Garden in Kashmir. It was an enclosed place with just one narrow entrance, where children used to play kabaddi and other games. 

The only time the garden came alive was on the eve of Baisakhi, when people from all over Punjab visited Amritsar to celebrate the great Punjabi festival. There was only one entrance to the walled area. It also served as the only exit.

The “renovated” Jallianwala Bagh has, for the first time, an exit gate for the tourists. This has undermined one of the distinct characteristics of the memorial. The entrance walls today have gaudily-done sculptors that eloquently and brilliantly say nothing. 

To be fair to Modi, it can verily be said that he has “beautified” the area. The large well into which many jumped to protect themselves from Dyer’s bullets has been covered with a transparent barrier. As many as 200 bodies were recovered from the well. No story is as poignant as the story of the well.  

The sound and light show will make the people sit, relax and enjoy, perhaps, munching peanuts. This is not a figment of the imagination. That is what I saw when I visited the cellular jails at Andamans a few years ago. There, too, history has been rewritten.

The cell where VD Savarkar was accommodated is today like a temple when the truth is that he submitted several mercy petitions  to the British. He told the alien rulers that he would remain a disciplined person who would not raise his voice against them. He kept his word and did not do anything against the British after he was released. Of course, he sowed the seeds of Hindutva!

On the contrary, hundreds of prisoners — Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs — were tortured and killed within the four walls of the prison. The prisoners had the worst experience when the jail was under the control of the Japanese. They turned out to be worse than the British. Netaji Bose visited the jail when it was under the Japanese but he could do nothing to protect the interests of the prisoners.

The father of a Sikh friend, who was posted as a doctor at Andamans, was tortured and killed by the Japanese because they thought that he was a spy of the British. They have all been relegated to the background, whereas the clemency-seeker is now the hero of Andamans. This is what happens when short-sighted persons, with no sense of history or involvement in the making of history, become leaders of an otherwise great nation!

The Ahmedabad-based company, which conceptualised and implemented the renovation of the Bagh with support from the Archaeological Survey of India and the National Buildings Construction Corporation, can pride itself for the work done. They can only do what they are good at.

The moot point is whether Jallianwala Bagh needed such a makeover or not. Anyone who has visited the site till one and a half years ago when it was closed for “renovation” would have been horrified by the bullet marks on the walls. 

Some bullets could even be seen embedded in the wall, 100 years after they were fired. They could not have looked at the well into which men and women, the old and the young, jumped only to die of asphyxiation and broken limbs, except in a state of utter shock and devastation. 

As they entered or exited the Bagh through the corridor-like entrance, they would have imagined how the soldiers blocked the gate and forced the people to run helter-skelter and fall prey to the bullets fired ceaselessly by the soldiers at their chests with an intent to kill. General Dyer had that day 50 men under his command. Incidentally, not one of the soldiers who actually fired was a British. All were Gorkhas or other Indians. 

The visitors would have returned not munching potato chips but wondering how a cruel, despotic regime could be so ruthless in dealing with unarmed people who rose up against it. In all, 1650 bullets were fired on that day. Shashi Tharoor, MP, in his book claims that not one bullet failed to hit a human being. The bullets embedded on the wall speak otherwise.

Yes, Jallianwala Bagh attracted tourists from all over India and abroad. They went there not to enjoy the scenery but to learn how man could be cruel to fellow human beings when he is fired by passions of vengeance when some Indians ransacked British banks the previous day and killed some white men and women.

Nonetheless, it must also be mentioned that the kith and kin of those who were killed at Jallianwala Bagh were paid monetary compensation of over Rs 8,000 per person. In all, Rs 2 million was distributed as compensation. It was not a small amount in 1919. 

When I was at Class IX and X, I had to pay a monthly tuition fee of Rs 6. Many of my classmates, especially girls, stopped attending classes, for their parents could not afford the fees. No, I am not as old as Jallianwala Bagh. 

I studied in the sixties. At that time a labourer earned a wage of Rs 3 per day. Women labourers got only Rs 2.50. In 1919, the monthly salary of a teacher was not even Rs 10. By the way, how much compensation did we pay to those who were killed by our police and security forces in various agitations since Independence? 

What happened at Jallianwala Bagh is what would happen to archaeological and historical sites everywhere if they are handed over to corporates who can’t hear anything but the tinkling of money. 
Through this work, the authorities concerned have caused irreparable damage to what Jallianwala Bagh symbolised to the people at large, a place of homage for the innocent Indians who became martyrs for a cause that helped the nation attain Independence 75 years ago.

Given the shoddy restoration work at Amritsar, is it any surprise that Gandhians are up in arms against what is being attempted at the Sabarmati Ashram in Ahmedabad? The Gandhi Ashram Memorial and Precincts Development Project, with an estimated cost of Rs 1200 crore and spread over 54 acres, is far more ambitious than what has been done in Amritsar. 

In practical terms, it is being conceptualised and implemented as a Gandhi Theme Park where Hriday Kunj, the house where Gandhi and Kasturba spent many years and the museum Charles Correa designed would remain just annexes to the park where the people would congregate for merriment and to socialise with one another.

The Ashram would lose its appeal as the abode of a person about whom Albert Einstein had said that generations hence would scarcely believe that a person by the name Gandhi lived on earth. Gandhi has already been reduced to a spectacle, a symbol of toilet. Fortunately, he is now a revered figure the world over. In India, he lives in the hearts and minds of the people. It will be a great tragedy if the Ashrams he built become part of amusement parks. This kind of extravaganza in his name will mark his second assassination!


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