ON August 28, 2021, after closed-door work that lasted more than a year, the ‘renovated’ Jallianwala Bagh was digitally dedicated and opened to the public by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The PM wrote on his Twitter handle: “Join me as we inaugurate the renovated complex of Jallianwala Bagh Smarak... I also invite you to watch the sound and light show. It would display the horrific massacre of April 1919 and instil a spirit of gratitude and reverence towards the martyrs.”
Although many people watched the ceremony, their response was, ironically, the opposite. There were dissenting voices from the families of freedom fighters, social activists and academics, besides culture, heritage and conservation experts, journalists, tourists and politicians. Some of the expressions summing up their responses were ‘erasure of history’, ‘insult to martyrs’, ‘corporatisation’, ‘hideous transformation’ and ‘great damage to India’s collective history’.
Back in 1961, the Jallianwala Bagh had been dedicated as a national memorial to the public by the first President, Dr Rajendra Prasad, after its conservation under the supervision of the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial Trust created by the 1951 Act. The Trust comprised the Prime Minister as its permanent chairman and the Culture Minister, the AICC president, the Punjab Chief Minister and the Governor as its permanent trustees. Three other members are nominated for a term of five years.
The site had been planned to preserve the narrow lane, the only entry to the site, an old well, and a dilapidated wall with bullet marks on it. To mark the point from where the British forces had fired, a stone with an inscription was affixed there. On the right side, an Amar Jyoti was affixed on a rectangular platform with the inscription: ‘In Memory of Martyrs — April 13, 1919.’ In the old buildings on the left side, a museum displaying old photographs and paintings and the office of the secretary were set up. A pylon in the shape of a liberty flame was added in the centre.
The year 2019 marked 100 years of the massacre. To commemorate the occasion, the Union government decided to ‘renovate’ the site at a cost of Rs 20 crore. The government also amended the Act, removing the AICC president as a permanent member and giving itself powers to remove any nominated member before five years without assigning any reason.
The Archaeological Survey of India and the National Building Construction Corporation (India) Limited were appointed to supervise the execution of the project by Ahmedabad-based Vama Communications. Perceiving the site as a tourist destination, the project has ended up defacing the memorial. The project has been conceived and executed without an in-depth and sensitive understanding of the history, spirit and ethos of the site.
The narrow lane from where the soldiers led by Gen Dyer had entered the site has been ruthlessly changed. The cheerful copper-coloured human figures, mounted on the walls on both sides of the lane, evoke a misleadingly celebratory spirit which runs contrary to the solemnity of martyrdom. The statues of boys and elderly Sikh men wearing the patka bear no resemblance to the people massacred on April 13, 1919. Renaming the ‘Martyrs’ lane’ as ‘Heritage lane’ is tantamount to undermining the sacrifice of the martyrs. The stone marking at the firing point has been removed, and the inscription has been installed on the ground. The Amar Jyoti has been relocated.
There are galleries showcasing Punjab’s history, India’s Independence movement and the Ghadar movement with wall-hanging billboards and laser shows. But the space in every gallery is insufficient to do justice to these complex narratives. The visitors face inconvenience as they are jostled and forced to move on.
Using the Lakhori or Nanakshahi bricks to rebuild its superstructure, the martyrs’ well is made to look like a medieval structure, whereas it is actually a modern one. The liberty flame pylon, where every year on April 13 a contingent of the Punjab Police salutes the martyrs by reversing their arms, now has a lotus pond in front of it. The complete list of those who sacrificed their lives on that fateful day in 1919 has not been prepared and displayed anywhere on the site premises.
On the pathways, the metal railing has been replaced by a wooden railing, which has got damaged in less than a year. The artificial landscaping — adding pathways and mounds on the plain ground — gives it an exotic look, compromising the spirit and essence of the site. A platform named ‘salvation centre’ has been built to project the site of bloodshed as a site of spirituality. Worse, the ‘salvation centre’ serves only as a selfie spot for the tourists.
In the name of a facelift, the erroneous perception of the martyrs’ memorial as a ‘tourist destination’ and the unwanted additions just to use up funds have defaced the site, inviting controversy and criticism.
To set things right, all old articles — metal railing, paintings, stone/metal pillars, etc — need to be recovered and reinstalled. A committee of language, landscaping and architecture experts with a deep knowledge of history should be formed. The project implementation agency should be blacklisted and the project grant, along with penalty, should be recovered to create a corpus fund for future maintenance. The three nominated members of the Trust should be well-known historians, conservation experts, social activists, members of families of freedom fighters and artists, cutting across political party lines. Once nominated, they should be allowed to complete their term.
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