Updated: September 9, 2021 8:35:19 pm
The beautification/renovation of Jallianwala Bagh Memorial done by the central government through a Gujarat-based private company has come under criticism. A great deal of anguish has been expressed by the people stating that in the guise of beatification, a historical site of sacrifice has been turned into a picnic spot.
Before addressing the issue, it would be appropriate to reiterate certain facts about the massacre at Jallianwala Bagh. It took place on April 13, 1919, the day of Baisakhi festival. Thousands of people, including women and children, had come to Amritsar from nearby villages and towns. Many of them had camped in Jallianwala Bagh’s open ground. The atmosphere in Punjab was tense on account of the agitation organised to oppose the infamous Rowlatt Act. The public and police had clashed in Amritsar for three days prior to the Jallianwala Bagh incident. On April 10, during the protests, five Britishers had been killed and some people had reportedly misbehaved with one Miss Sherwood. Congress leaders Dr Satya Pal and Saifuddin Kitchlu had been arrested. A public meeting was organised in Jallianwala Bagh in the evening where resolutions sought the release of the arrested leaders and the withdrawal of the Rowlatt Act. General Reginald Edward Dyer (who was called to Amritsar by the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, Michael Francis O’Dwyer) ordered the soldiers to fire on the gathering without any proclamation or warning.
Estimates said 15,000 to 20,000 Indians were present at the meeting. The death toll was between 500 and 1,000 and thousands were injured. After the firing, General Dyer refused to shift the injured to the hospital for treatment saying that this was not his duty! Martial Law was not applicable in Amritsar on April 13 — it was imposed three days after the massacre.
Eyewitnesses, historians, and administrative officials have analysed the “role” played by General Dyer in the massacre — his racial hatred towards Indians has been spoken about. The British government constituted the Hunter Commission for investigation and the Congress set up its own probe committee. An army commission in England investigated the role of Dyer and his action was discussed in the British parliament. While the lower house of the British parliament condemned Dyer, the majority in the upper house supported the general. The Morning Post, a British newspaper, collected around 30,000 Pounds for Dyer in recognition of his services to the Empire. The British in England and British officials in India mostly acclaimed Dyer as the protector of the Raj.
In his autobiography, Jawaharlal Nehru writes that while returning from Lahore to Delhi by train, he himself heard Dyer telling his military companions that he did precisely what he ought to have done on April 13, 1919. Dyer was returning in the same compartment after giving testimony before the Hunter Commission. Dyer, in every testimony and conversation, had justified his action without any sign of regret or remorse. There are indications that he even said if he had more ammunition and soldiers, he would have taken even tougher action. It seems if Dyer had been able to carry the two armoured cars with built-in guns, which could not be taken inside the Jallianwala Bagh due to the narrow entrance, the scale of the massacre would have been enormous!
Based on Hunter Commission’s report and other evidence, General Dyer was removed from his military post and barred from further employment in India. Dyer, who was born in India, returned to England and died on July 24, 1927 from illness. Revolutionary Udham Singh shot Michael O’Dwyer on March 13, 1940 at Caxton Hall in London, as he had pledged just after the massacre. Udham Singh did not run away from the spot. He was arrested and hanged on July 31, 1940. Udham Singh was raised in an orphanage. He was an admirer of Bhagat Singh and a proponent of Hindu-Muslim unity. It is said that while living in the orphanage, he had named himself Ram Mohammed Singh Azad. After the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, Rabindranath Tagore and Gandhi returned the honours the Empire had conferred on them. The Jallianwala Bagh massacre was a watershed incident. The Indian Independence Movement entered a new phase thereafter. After three decades of strong struggle and sacrifices, the country attained Independence.
Needless to say, in order to preserve the spirit of sacrifice that defined the freedom struggle, it is necessary to preserve the monuments associated with it. For this, along with imbibing the spirit of sacrifice, latest technology and expertise are needed for the conservation of historical heritage. There is a difference between conservation and beautification. Beautification would involve changing the original character of historical/national monuments and converting it into a picnic spot. This is what has been done in Jallianwala Bagh Memorial.
India’s ruling elite — political parties, governments and sections of the intelligentsia — which has been in the service of neo-imperialism (via neo-liberalism) for the past three decades has no concern for the spirit of the struggle and sacrifice made during the freedom movement. Not surprisingly, they are engaged in selling the sovereignty and resources/assets of the country to corporate houses/MNCs. In order to keep its business going without any opposition, the ruling elite is destroying the spirit of freedom movement that inspired Indians against colonial subjugation so that the very basis of opposition to neo-imperialism is destroyed.
It can be argued safely that most of the political elite of the country is indulged in this business of misrepresenting, distorting and demeaning the values of freedom movement and sacrifices of known-unknown martyrs. However, the RSS/BJP has its own additional agenda in this campaign: When the spirit of the struggle and sacrifice of the freedom movement is completely destroyed, it will be cleansed of the stigma of opposing the freedom movement.
Therefore, those opposing changes in the original character of Jallianwala Bagh Memorial should also understand and oppose its root cause, which is the neo-imperialist grip on India.
(The author taught Hindi at Delhi University)