Parliament dodged a bullet during the recently-concluded Budget session when the Rajya Sabha adjourned without taking up a bill that the PM Narendra Modi-led government had bulldozed through the Lok Sabha.
That cynical piece of legislation, sadly, was The Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial (Amendment) Bill, 2018, which ought to have commemorated the hundreds of innocent people brutally killed at Jallianwala Bagh on 13 April 1919. The centenary of this national tragedy should have been an opportunity to bring a divided Parliament together in spirit of national unity. Instead, the Modi government chose to use the occasion to push a proposal of mind-boggling pettiness – to remove the president of the Indian National Congress from the trust that runs Jallianwala Bagh.
The BJP claims it is an anomaly that the leader of a specific political party should be given an assigned place in the trust. But as I argued in Parliament, the reasons are embedded in history. It was the Congress that launched an investigation in 1919 and revealed the truth about the massacre, which the British had tried to cover up. The party also undertook relief work to help thousands of families affected by this gruesome incident.
At its annual session at Amritsar in December 1919, presided by Motilal Nehru, the Congress decided that the party should acquire the Jallianwala Bagh in order to build a national memorial there. A resolution to this effect was moved by Madan Mohan Malaviya on 27 December with these words:
“We have decided to raise the memorial not with any narrow motive. It is not to keep alive the dark deeds of General Dyer. We want it to be a Memorial to the Hindu-Muslim unity that had sprung out of the intermingling of Hindu and Muslim blood on that field of carnage.”
The Congress intended this monument to be a symbol of Hindu-Muslim unity, something which is increasingly under threat under the current dispensation. A special committee of the Congress with leaders like Mahatma Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru, Lala Lajpat Rai and others was appointed to acquire the land. It was a difficult process because the British tried their best to obliterate any attempt to memorialise the massacre and tried to set up a cloth market on the site. Gandhiji’s appeal to the nation to donate funds to the Congress for this purpose raised nearly Rs 10 lakh in less than a year– an enormous sum of money in 1919, akin to Rs 10 crore today. The site was purchased by the Congress with the help of Sashti Charan Mukherjee and a trust was established to oversee the development and maintenance of the monument.
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By 1951, Jawaharlal Nehru was the last living member of the trust. This was when the Congress decided to establish a statutory trust to oversee the site. A draft Bill to establish the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial Trust was approved by the Congress Working Committee in April 1950, and Dr B.R. Ambedkar moved the Bill in the Lok Sabha that month to convert the trust into a national statutory trust.
Ambedkar’s bill designated the president of the Indian National Congress as an ex-officio trustee. Nehru explained while participating in the debate on the bill, this reflected the intimate connection between the Congress and the memorial, and was not intended to imply that it was a party memorial.
The issue came up again half a century later when the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Culture, under the chairmanship of senior CPI(M) leader Shri Nilotpal Basu on 11 November 2003 presented the 71st Report on the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial. Para 3 of the report states:
“The composition of the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial Trust as prescribed in the parent Act was in order and the inclusion of the President of the Indian National Congress was in keeping with the contribution of the Indian National Congress in the freedom movement in general, and glorious struggle which led to the Jallianwala Bagh incident in particular.”
This was the level of bipartisanship that existed in our politics; even our political opponents were mature enough to recognise the role played by the Congress party in our freedom struggle. Today, the Modi government is trying to deny that history with a bill removing the Congress president from the trust his own party created for a site the Congress itself purchased.
What is the heritage of the ruling party, which is trying to deny the role of the Congress in establishing the memorial? The parent body of this party, the RSS as well as the Sangh Parivar, have a shameless past of genuflecting before the British. There are memos of the British Raj that state the Sangh kept itself within the colonial laws, collaborated with the authorities and refused to participate in the Quit India movement. It is richly ironic that the heirs to such an ideology now seek to deny the role of the Congress in our freedom struggle.
The bill also empowers the central government to remove nominated trustees before the completion of their term, without assigning any reasons. In other words, the government can change nominated trustees for purely political reasons (which need not be disclosed) and pack this memorial that symbolises Hindu-Muslim unity with Hindutva ideologues and government stooges. We have seen this with the appointments made by the government to the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, replacing trustees who opposed the attempts to dilute Nehru’s association with Teen Murti Bhavan. People associated with the RSS have been packed into the Indian Council of Historical Research.
The government’s failure to specify grounds due to which a nominated trustee can be removed, betrays their real intent in trying to throttle the autonomy of our country’s institutions. The bill is therefore merely an instrument in the ongoing infiltration of our institutions by people of a particular political persuasion.
The removal of the Congress president from the trust and the arrogation by the government of wide powers under this bill is part of a larger trend of the ruling party’s attempts to distort our history and to mythicise lies. We have seen this with the attempt to tinker with history books to erase references to Nehru, depicting religious minorities as foreigners, or removing signs of Muslim influence such as renaming Allahabad to Prayagraj and Urdu Bazaar to Hindi Bazaar. While the government makes these changes through executive actions, many of its supporters pursue these malicious objectives through fake news and bigotry on social media platforms.
This Modi government may try to erase our history; fill our institutions with Right-wing ideologues; neglect our sites of medieval heritage and take an axe to the history of our freedom movement. They can attempt to demolish the secular fabric of our country, but they will never succeed.
Pluralism is the heart and soul of India, one which the British could not suppress despite their deliberate policy of divide and rule. The Congress party’s place in building a pluralist and inclusive India cannot be destroyed through a misguided law by which the ruling party tries to rewrite history. The forthcoming 2019 Lok Sabha elections should bury this misconceived proposal for good.
Dr Shashi Tharoor is a Member of Parliament for Thiruvananthapuram and former MoS for External Affairs and HRD. He served the UN as an administrator and peacekeeper for three decades. He studied History at St. Stephen’s College, Delhi University and International Relations at Tufts University. Tharoor has authored 18 books, both fiction and non-fiction; his most recent book is The Paradoxical Prime Minister. Follow him on Twitter @ShashiTharoor.
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