Jallianwala Bagh is arguably the oldest memorial to the Indian struggle for independence. It was on 13 April 1919 that colonial troops under the command of General R.E.H. Dyer killed 500-600 unarmed civilians and wounded three times as many. Within a year of the massacre, M.K. Gandhi and other Indian nationalist leaders organised a public subscription, and the Bagh was turned into a memorial park. Arguing for the need to commemorate the victims, Gandhi wrote in Young India journal in February 1920:
‘We were unable to protect our helpless countrymen when they were ruthlessly massacred. We may decline, if we will, to avenge the wrong. The nation will not lose if we did. But shall we – can we afford to – decline to perpetuate the memory and to show to the surviving members of the families of the dead that we are sharers in their sufferings, by erecting a national tombstone and by telling the world thereby that in the death of these men each one of us has lost dear relations?’
The barren ground of Jallianwala Bagh soon became an item on the tourist itinerary, providing a stark contrast to the splendour of the Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple) nearby. Showing an American visitor around in 1921, a local resident explained what the Bagh meant to Indians:
‘The only amends that the British bureaucracy here or the British people in England have made for these acts is to ask us ‘to forgive and forget’ the past, and sometime, when we feel inclined to close up this chapter of shame of our history, the cry that comes out of this blood-stained wall rings louder and clearer in our ears.’ (Tarini Prasad Sinha, “Pussyfoot” Johnson and His Campaign in Hindustan, Madras: Ganesh & Co., 1922, p. 243)
The official memorial, with its iconic central pillar, however, was only built in 1961, long after India had gained its Independence. Since then, the site has attracted tens of thousands of visitors from all over the world, including a succession of unenthusiastic British dignitaries, who have made it something of a tradition to refuse to offer a formal apology for the massacre. When the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, prostrated himself before the memorial in 2019, it was an entirely unexpected, and in many ways poignant, gesture.
Rapid, tragic change over the years
I first visited Amritsar almost a decade ago to research my book on the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and have been back almost every year since. During this time, I saw the city and the memorial itself undergo a rapid and frankly tragic change. The road leading to Jallianwala Bagh and the Darbar Sahib (Golden Temple) was turned into something resembling the set of a Bollywood film with fake facades in some vaguely ‘traditional’ style. Garish statues of Punjabi dancers gave the entire area the look and feel of an amusement park, rather than one of the historically most important cities of India, and the holiest site of Sikhs.
In 2018, a cheap-looking statue of Udham Singh was erected right outside Jallianwala Bagh, while a modern white marble sculpture appeared near the entrance. The one redeeming aspect of this sculpture was that the names of the 379 identified victims of the massacre were actually listed – for the first time. One of the striking features of the memorial and museum has always been the way it celebrated nationalist heroes who were not present on 13 April 1919, while practically ignoring those ordinary Indians who were.
Commercial aesthetics of cheap nationalism take over
With the most recent revamp of the Jallianwala Bagh memorial, we are seeing the final traces of the past erased to give way to a tacky tourist-attraction. News reports describe the new ‘attractions’ of the transformed site, including an array of sculptures and 3D projections. The original entrance to the Bagh, through which Dyer and his troops entered in the afternoon of 13 April 1919, has been ‘repositioned’ and is lined with figures, while visitors can enjoy a lightshow in the evening, projected directly onto the monument. A hundred years on, there are now ticket counters at the site that Gandhi envisaged as a mourning place for the dead.
Join me as we inaugurate the renovated complex of Jallianwala Bagh Smarak today at 6:25 PM. 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. pic.twitter.com/p2BDHUbXAJ
— Narendra Modi (@narendramodi) August 28, 2021
As corny as it may sound, Jallianwala Bagh used to have a soul. It was a living part of Amritsar’s cityscape, a meeting place for friends and family, where locals would do their morning exercise in the quiet hour before the arrival of hordes of tourists (including myself). Granted, I always had mixed feelings about the 1961 memorial, with its bombastic central pillar, never mind the neglected topiary soldiers, which seemed to make a mockery of the events of 13 April 1919. Little effort had been made to preserve the original bullet holes, which had been allowed to be prodded and probed by thousands of visitors over a hundred-year period. Was it not for the painted white squares framing these holes, they would be largely indistinguishable from the wear and tear of the brick work itself. But you could still find a peaceful corner next to an old tree that had witnessed the massacre a century ago, and imagine the place as it once was. Now even that is gone, replaced by the commercial aesthetics of cheap nationalism.
Historical memorials are, of course, as much about the present, as they are about the past, and it is indeed naïve to expect things to remain the same. There is, however, a real difference between preservation and Disneyfication. The memory of the victims of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre surely deserves better.
Kim A. Wagner is professor of Global and Imperial History, Queen Mary, University of London, and author of ‘Jallianwala Bagh: An Empire of Fear and the Making of the Amritsar Massacre’ (Penguin: 2019). He tweets @KimAtiWagner. Views are personal.