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Tuesday, September 28, 2021

Memorial to a massacre: Stark Jallianwala passage gets a mural makeover

The Rs-20-crore upgradation project for the Jallianwala Bagh monument was sanctioned in 2019 under the National Implementation Committee to mark 100 years of the massacre.

Written by Divya A , Kamaldeep Singh Brar | Amritsar, New Delhi |
Updated: September 1, 2021 11:52:52 pm
The passage leading to the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar after renovation. (Illustration by Rana Simranjit Singh)

Jallianwala Bagh a century ago, the historian Kim A Wagner wrote in his 2019 book of the same name, was a right trapezoid about 200 yards long and 150 yards wide, “entirely enclosed by the backs of houses and brick walls”, the main entrance to which was “a long narrow passage, wide enough for people to pass in both directions, though not so wide as to accommodate vehicles”.

From the time schoolchildren first learn about the massacre that took place at the Bagh on Baisakhi day, 1919, they are told about this lane — by blocking which the troops of Gen REH Dyer cut off escape for the crowd assembled inside, and mowed down hundreds at practically pointblank range.

On Saturday, when Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the revamped Jallianwala Bagh, the narrow lane with stark brick walls had transformed into something unrecognisable — a tunnel partially closed to the sky, complete with a new floor, and with the walls on either side crowded with a shiny mural of dozens of human figures, symbolising the common people who fell to Dyer’s bullets that day.

“Devastated to hear that Jallianwala Bagh…has been revamped — which means that the last traces of the event have effectively been erased,” Wagner posted on Twitter on Saturday. He called it a “part of the general Disneyfication of the old city of Amritsar”.

Wagner’s tweet set off a storm of outrage from historians, culture aficionados, and ordinary tourists who had visited Jallianwala Bagh before it was shut for renovation in 2019. British Sikh MP Preet Kaur Gill tweeted: “Our history being erased. Why?”

There was the other view as well. BJP MP Shwait Malik, who is also a trustee of the Jallianwala Bagh Trust, argued: “These sculptures in the lane will make visitors conscious of those who walked in on that day… Earlier, people walked this narrow lane without knowing its history, now they will walk with history.”

A senior official of the Archaeological Survey of India (ASI) told The Indian Express that the project was executed entirely by the Union Ministry of Culture, with the ASI supervising. “The project has been implemented under the guidance of a committee comprising eminent historians that was formed in 2019. They met at every stage of the project, and laboriously went through drawings and sketches for things like people’s clothing,” the official said.

According to this official, the topography of the Bagh was different in 1919. “The narrow lane was not like this at the time — it took shape after houses were built on both sides. Now, when visitors will walk in, they will look at both sides and understand how ordinary men, women and children had walked in cheerfully on a festive day, and the fate they met.”

Former MP Tarlochan Singh, also a trustee, said: “There was no renovation of the Bagh in the last 100 years. It was we who made a case for upgrading it in the centenary year of the massacre.”

Conservationist Gurmeet Sangha Rai expressed disappointment with the “drama” that had been brought to the lane.

“The spirit of the space has been compromised to create a kind of drama by installing sculptures etc.,” she said. “Japan has not converted Hiroshima into a theme park. They have preserved the half-burnt structure to tell its history. When you go to Hiroshima, you come out with a sense that it shouldn’t happen again.”

The government, she said, could have held an international competition with international jury “to choose the best idea so that the real message of Jallianwala Bagh was conveyed with sensitivity. Installing sculptures doesn’t make visitors feel anything.”

The Rs-20-crore upgradation project for the Jallianwala Bagh monument was sanctioned in 2019 under the National Implementation Committee to mark 100 years of the massacre. The advisory committee had senior officials from the Ministries of Culture and Tourism, besides the ASI and NBCC Ltd, which floated a tender and engaged Ahmedabad-based Vama Communications to execute the project, officials said.

Not just the lane, the entire monument has undergone changes. Toughened glass has been installed on all sides of the Shaheedi Khu (Martyrs’ Well) “for a better view”. Four new galleries have been set up, with material on the massacre as well as the working of Empire in the Punjab.

Vandana Raj, founder of Vama, said, “The idea was not to change, but to enhance. For instance, the superstructure around the Matryrs’ Well that has been removed was never a part of the heritage structure. It came much later, in the 1960s, when the Bagh was turned into a monument. Now, the glass walls offer a much better view to visitors while also retaining the originality of the well from 1919.”

The widespread seepage and in-growth of weeds and algae have been fixed, and the dilapidated and ill-kept buildings have been turned into viewing galleries, Raj said. Unused storehouses have been turned into administrative buildings and a 100-seat theatre.

The ASI official said that the famous and evocative bullet marks on the walls have been conserved by the local circle of the Survey “under direct supervision from Delhi”. Members of the various committees held no less than 20-30 meetings from time to time during the two years of the facelift project, the official said. At these meetings, each and every detail was vetted and approved, and only then was it implemented, he said.

Ex-serviceman, environmentalist, and writer Parkash Singh Bhatti (83), remembers the way Jallianwala Bagh was before the first round of renovations in the 1960s.

“The Congress government was the first to renovate the Jallianwala Bagh in the late 1950s,” Bhatti said. “Before that, there used to be milk and lassi shops on the right side of the entrance lane, and private property on the left side.”

The Congress, Bhatti said, “had politics on its mind, and no objective to protect the history of the Bagh”. By the time the renovation was completed in 1961, the Bagh had already lost much of its original character, he said. “The well was covered, the landscape was changed, and some new structures were constructed.”

And now, “the BJP government has made it very clear that they too have only politics on their mind and no intention to preserve the history of Jallianwala Bagh,” Bhatti said.

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