Clubs battle spades
Reviving Ram Bagh

Recently, a government order for the eviction of three clubs on the premises of Ram Bagh in Amritsar was passed because the Company Bagh, as it is popularly called, is a heritage property. This has stirred a hornet’s nest since the clubs have been an important part of the social life in the region. Varinder Walia looks at the ongoing tussle

A view of the demolished historic Baradari at Ram Bagh, the summer palace of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in Amritsar.
A view of the demolished historic Baradari at Ram Bagh, the summer palace of Maharaja Ranjit Singh in Amritsar. — Photos by Rajiv Sharma

In a landmark order, on May 25, the then Sub Divisional Magistrate-cum-Collector, Vimal Setia, had ordered eviction of all three clubs—Services Club, Amritsar Club and Lumbsdon Club—from the historic Ram Bagh by June 20 this year. These clubs were opened by the British after annexation of the Punjab. Their lease had expired for the last about 15 years. The order reads, "I am of the considered view that the Clubs are in unauthorisd occupation of the public premises". The eviction orders clearly mentioned that having failed to vacate the clubs by June, 2007, the Municipal Corporation would be at liberty to get the area vacated under section 5(2) of the Land Eviction and Land Recovery Act, 1973.

In a unanimous resolution, the local Municipal Corporation vide resolution July 1, 1994, had decided that excess land in possession of clubs may be got vacated immediately.

The Ram Bagh has a cluster of traditional buildings and canopies but due to the fast pace of modernisation, the Bagh is losing its identity. The run-up to the eviction order was the widespread feeling that the heritage properties of the city were being neglected. The Amritsar chapter of the Indian National Trust for Art and Culture (INTACH) has documented about 300 buildings in the walled city, most of which are facing slow death due to indifference of the authorities concerned. It (INTACH) expressed the apprehension that many of these buildings would disappear if the state government failed to amend the law to preserve heritage sites.

Poor condition

Both the district administration and the MC should be held responsible for the violation of the acts enacted for the conservation of historical buildings. A letter by the Director, Cultural and Historical and Museum Department, to the Deputy Commissioner on July 8, 1999 reads: "You are well aware that whole of Ram Bagh has been declared as the protected monument, as per Government of Punjab’s notification number 1/14/97- TS /2051, dated October 10, 1997. Now, this garden is totally developed as per rules of historical monuments by the department`85"

The letter also stated that no activity in this garden, including holding of marriage parties, political activities, would be conducted and no allotment would be made to any organisation. The Supreme Court, in Rajiv Mankotia v/s Secretary to President of India, on March 27, 1997, ruled, " We direct Government of India to maintain all national monuments under the respective Act and to ensure that all of them are properly maintained so that the cultural and historical heritage of India and its beauty and grandeur of the monuments, sculptures secured through breathless and passionate labour, workmanship, craftsmanship and the skills of the Indian architects, artistes and masons is continued to be preserved. They are pride of Indians and places of public visit." A question arises whether there is anybody to implement the ruling of the apex court in Amritsar city.

History revisited

Maharaja Ranjit Singh took a keen interest in the development and beautification of Amritsar during his rule. He followed the Mughal pattern in laying out gardens and constructing beautiful buildings, including forts, most of which are now on the brink of ruin. The maharaja got Ram Bagh, Amritsar, constructed on the pattern of Shalimar Bagh, Lahore. Ram Bagh was renamed as Company Bagh by the British. Amritsar looked like a fortified city in the days of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. The fortification consisted of an immense rampart and a wide ditch, apart from 12 gates, to save the town from a foreign invasion. Unmindful of their heritage value, most of the gates have since then been pulled down. After the death of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, many old buildings were replaced by "modern monuments" constructed by the British.

The historical Ram Bagh, an oasis amid a concrete jungle, deserves to be preserved at all cost. A rapidly changing city profile, misuse of built space and unauthorised building activities have damaged the heritage areas. The survival of monuments in Ram Bagh is under threat from population explosion. The state government had promised that no building more than 100 years old in the city would be "touched". The demolition of the Baradari in the Ram Bagh proves the hollowness of the government claims. Now, Panorama, in the name of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, has been built after denotifying the area. This is in gross violation of the law.

Saving heritage

The protected monuments of Ram Bagh include Service Club, a bathing tank, reading room, four watch towers, and Baradari. The total area is 728 kanals, three marlas. Interestingly, the Director, Cultural Affairs and Museums, in a communication to the Deputy Commissioner, Amritsar on July 8, 1999, had urged handing over charge of buildings situated in Ram Bagh after its declaration as a protected monument. The letter reads: "You are well aware that the whole of Ram Bagh has been declared protected as per the Government of Punjab notification dated October 8, 1997. This garden is to be developed as per the rules of the department."

It was stated that no activity was to be allowed at Ram Bagh, including marriage

parties and political rallies. It was also decided that clubs functioning in the garden would be closed and shifted elsewhere, keeping in view the heritage value of the site. A copy of the letter was sent to the Municipal Corporation for ensuring eviction of clubs from the historic building. The lease of Amritsar Club had expired on October 30, 1988, and Lumbsdon Club on October 31, 1989.

Even as the Director of Monuments, Archaeological Survey of India, in a communication to Directors of Archaeological Departments of all states, has directed making of provisions so that construction of shopping complexes, expansion of dwelling areas, construction of high-rises and hotels is allowed only 500 metres from the protected monuments, many such buildings have mushroomed around the monument.

Another point raised by the ASI—that no new building should be added to the ‘protected’ area— is also being violated. The Government of Punjab, Department of Tourism and Cultural Affairs, vide notification dated April 10, 1997, had ordered protection and maintenance of ancient and historic places under Section sub-section 4 (1) of the Punjab Ancient and Historic Buildings and Sites Act, 1964.

The antiquity of the Ram Bagh could be gauged from the fact that the conservationists have found an amazing 200 year-old earthen sanitation system during the intensive digging operation.

The team of conservationists, led by Gurmeet Rai, Director, Cultural Resource Conservation Initiative (CRCI), found historical evidence as recorded in Gulgashat-e-Punjab, the famous manuscript of Pt Tota Ram. The original foundation of the boundary wall that housed Char Bagh (meaning four gardens in different quadrants) has been found near one of the chhatris (corner bastion) of the historical garden..

A L Adlakha, president of Service Club, while quoting from the historical document claims that initially the Ram Bagh was a shambles and called the ‘jungle gardens’ during the British era. Showing the Municipal Corporation map of 1849, Adlakha claims that the garden was square in shape and much smaller than its present size. The area of the garden was extended by the British who established these clubs to maintain the garden. The details given in the book prove that the area marked by Archeological Survey of India in its notification dated October 15, 2004 was not the original Ram Bagh Garden and extra land had been added to it after annexation of the Punjab by the British.

The clubs are part of the Amritsar heritage and have been in existence since 1908. They cater to more than 4,000 members and have 500 employees.

No funds

The municipal authorities have expressed their inability to provide funds and manpower to preserve Ram Bagh. If the clubs were evicted from the garden, will the corporation be able to maintain the green belt in the heart of the city? The managements of the three clubs point out that they would pursue the case with the SAD-BJP government for giving its approval for their continuation in the Ram Bagh complex. The clubs have been regularly paying conservancy charges to the municipal authorities for the past many years for keeping the surroundings clean. To fortify their claim to occupy the club premises, the managements pointed out they had been regularly paying lease money till 2002 at the rate of Rs 6,000 per month to the civic authorities with a rider to enhance the annual fee by 20 per cent as per the instructions of the then SDM but the authorities refused to accept the lease money from then onwards.

Lobbying to douse the raging controversy over the eviction orders to vacate the century-old clubs from the historic Ram Bagh Garden, BJP MP Navjot Singh Sidhu, alongwith BJP MLA Anil Joshi and other leaders, have come out with an alternate proposition. However, the Archaeological Survey of India claims that it would revive the pristine glory of the historical garden by ensuring eviction of all the three "un-authorised clubs" from the heritage zone.



Centres of community life

V.N. Datta gives a different view of the evolution of the clubs

The Amritsar Club inside the historic Ram Bagh has been a focal point of social life since the days of the British.
The Amritsar Club inside the historic Ram Bagh has been a focal point of social life since the days of the British.
The fountains in Ram Bagh close to the Maharaja Ranjit Singh museum are non-functional and turn into drains during the monsoon.
The fountains in Ram Bagh close to the Maharaja Ranjit Singh museum are non-functional and turn into drains during the monsoon.

Originally, the beautiful public garden (now called Ram Bagh) marks the site of a mud fort, the stronghold of the Bhangian misl. The grounds were encircled by masonry walls some 14-feet high, and a rampart carrying guns, while outside the wall, was a moat filled with water from the Hasli canal. The fort was laid by Maharaja Ranjit Singh in 1819. In the middle of the garden Ranjit Singh built a luxurious two-storeyed summer palace (now called baradari) which cost Rs 1,25,000. Nearby was a swimming bath for the ladies of the royal household. Small palaces were provided for the chiefs. Ranjit Singh used the central building as a country house during his visits to Amritar on Baisakhi, Divali and Dasehra.

Both the garden and buildings were constructed under the supervision of Faqir-Aziz-ul-Din, Sardar Desa Singh and Sardar Lehna Singh Majithia. The red-stone work of all these buildings was executed by workmen brought from Delhi by Faqir-Aziz-ud-Din. In 1847, some furniture was placed in Ram Bagh baradari in 1899 which was set apart for the use of English dignitaries and European travellers, and a couple of elephants were also ordered to be in attendance. The garden, the trees and the placing of pathways were set in such a way that the baradari stands out conspicuously as an imposing and elegant site.

After the annexation of Punjab in 1849, the chief commissioner, Punjab Sir John Lawrence made his headquarters in Ram Bagh for some time. There was hardly a top-ranking British official who on his visit to Amritsar did not visit Ram Bagh and the historical buildings bequeathed by Ranjit Singh. From October 29 to 31, 1853, a meeting was held in Ram Bagh with a view to abolishing the heinous practice of infanticide, and framing rules for the regulation of expenditure on marriage ceremonies. The chiefs of Kangra Hills, the Bedees of Dera Baba Nanak and the landlords and merchants attended the conference which was presided over by Raja Dina Nath.

The word ‘club’ is used in the sense of good company of such people who are supposed to be the most distinguished and fashionable part of society. The earliest club known in the 16th century Bread Street or Friday Street Club was organised in London by Sir Walter Raleigh, and meeting at the Mermaid Tavern of which Shakespeare, Beaumont, Fletcher and Sheldon were members. In the eighteen century the clubs became very popular in the British social life. The Tavern, close to the Russell Square, became in the 18th century a centre of hectic cultural, literary and political activity in which luminaries like Edmund Burke, Charles Fox, Dr. Johnson, Boswell and Sheridan interacted and discussed important issues of high politics. The Apostles, the other famous club at Cambridge had Bertrand Russell, Keynes, and E.M. Forster as its members.

By the 19th century clubs had specialised from the Athenaeum (literary) and Reform (political) to the Services. The English Service clubs got neatly transported and transformed into the colonial clubs of India. Initially, the colonial clubs in India became the heart-beat of British civil servants and the military cadre who found in them a place of comfort and entertainment. The British set up clubs almost in all the principal towns of the country, and some of the famous ones which are still functioning are the Bombay Gymkhana, the Kasauli Club, the Bowering Institute, Bangalore, Adyar Club, Chennai, the Delhi Gymkhana Club, Chelmsford Club, Amar Singh Club, Srinagar etc. Dr Rajendra Prasad, Dr Radhakrishnan and Krishna Menon addressed some meetings on the educational and philosophical problems at the Chelmsford Club.

After the annexation of Punjab, the British civil and military officers, bank officers and foreign merchants settled in Amritsar in the civil lines area which covered the Mall and Lawrence Road (named after Sir John Lawrence). In the evening their women-folk walked in the cool air to the Ram Bagh later returning with their husbands from the Amritsar Club which was exclusively reserved for Europeans.

With passage of time the social cleavage between the British officials and the local educated community of Amritsar began to decline. Some noted Indian residents of the town began to visit the Amritsar Club like Sr Gopal Das Bhandari, the President of Amritsar Municipal Committee, the members of the well-known Mehra family; Rai Bahadur Labh Chand Mehra, and Rai Bahadur Prakash Chand Mehra, journalist G.R. Sethi, Dr M.D. Taseer, Lala Kesho Ram and Dr Sohan Singh, etc. I think a sense of close partnership of British officials and Indian citizens began to grow for the building up of a civil and civic life of the city of Amritsar to which the Deputy Commissioners A.A. Macdonald and Penderal Moon made a remarkable contribution. It would be clear from our account that the clubs in Amritsar became an integral part of the social life of the town.

After the achievement of India’s independence in 1947, the European-dominated club in Ram Bagh opened its membership to a large number of local residents of Amritsar including eminent lawyers, judges, civil servants, journalists and businessmen. The Amritsar Club became a vibrant seminary of the social and intellectual elite and magazine of politic discussions. The members of the club kept, intact not only the traditional values and social norms, but also broadened its scope and meaning by bringing it in tune with the growing needs of the society. To throw out the club from Ram Bagh would be to tinker with history and to sacrifice our priceless tradition, which has enriched the life of the people of Amritsar. I would plead with the citizens of Amritsar not to let this happen in any circumstances. It would be also in the fitness of things to produce and publish a book on the history of the clubs in Amritsar so that people may know what contributions they have made in the making of Amritsar as constituted today.