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By erasing traces of the Massacre, the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial becomes a tourist spot

In Other Parts Of The World, Like The Mauthausen Camp In Austria, Sites Of Horrific Massacres And Their Museums Make No Attempts To Either Subdue History Or To Amplify The Situation.

Entrance to the Jallianwala Bagh memorial in Amritsar. Photo: Bernard Gagnon/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

Some years ago, on a visit to Austria, I visited the small town of Linz in the north to see the Mauthausen Nazi Concentration Camp, where almost 200,000 World War prisoners from Poland and Russia were interred, systematically starved, beaten and gassed. The day I went was a particularly foggy autumn morning, and as I approached the crest of the hill, the buildings appeared to rise out of the mist – adding an additional chill to the place. Long structures of symmetrical brickwork, they stood there as ghostly reminders of history, frozen in perpetuity.

My main and only reason for making the gruesome pilgrimage was the fact of the site’s original authenticity, meticulously preserved with all the details of the camp – dark sunless barracks with 3-tier bunk beds, prisoner uniforms, clusters of gas chambers, even the Zyklon B gas canisters piled in the supply room. To be there was to witness the horror again in its most vivid and grim reality. The historical site and its museum made no attempt to either subdue history or to amplify the situation; it used no technological voice or sound recordings or son-et-lumieres to recreate but left the place as it had appeared to the prisoners themselves.

Bunk beds at the Mauthausen Nazi concentration camp. Photo: Ian McKellar/Flickr CC BY SA 2.0

Leaving the place as is seems to be difficult for a government that wishes to take credit for every situation – religious or cultural – for its own political gain. The story of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre is still so vivid in every Indian mind that to tamper with its reality is sacrilege: on that fateful day on April 13, 1919 a crowd had gathered at Jallianwala Bagh to protest the arrest of political leader Satyapal under the Rowlatt Act. People had assembled there in defiance of General Dyer’s imposition of martial law that forbade gatherings of more than four people. News of the protest so incensed Dyer he acted immediately, ordering his troops to move through the narrow passage towards the Bagh and getting them to fire into the protesting crowd. Up to 1,000 people are said to have died in the massacre that day. And the nondescript site riddled with bullet holes on bare brick walls became a critical, if tragic marker of Indian history and the freedom movement.

For a century now Jallianwala Bagh has remained a significant blot on the Colonial conscience, and as much as they tried, the British – pre and post-Raj were unable to subdue or erase signs of the tragedy. Till now, when the Indian government has so willingly obliged and covered up the distinguishing details of the event.

“The new smarak instills a spirit of gratitude and reverence towards the martyrs”. Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s remarks at the inauguration of the renovation were obviously written by a bored speechwriter and could well have been made without even a cursory look at the new memorial.

The Rs 20 crore renovation started in the centenary year by the Ministry of Culture have covered up the old brick walls at the entrance with a glittering parade of fanciful figures walking in a monumental terracotta parade. So outlandishly out of scale, the march of figures along the corridor has the appearance of local people returning home from a celebration. The makeover says nothing of death and destruction, nothing of the day’s cold-blooded murder, but skillfully diffuses the gravity of the historic situation and gives it the silliness and frivolity of a festive event.

The real problem, first and foremost, is the Indian failure to conceive of history as a distant relevant fact to be reimagined for the present, thereby encouraging the larger public to ponder the historic situation for its own merit. And secondly, the innate ability to reduce every national tragedy to family melodrama. At Jallianwala Bagh, one sculptor’s private view has become the nation’s public view. As the mural depicts, people must have walked along, holding hands looking up at the sky, chatting and cheerful. Part Bollywood, part history, mixing art and caricature, some neon lighting and a bit of son-et-Lumiere. Throw in a garden and water fountains, a few trees, paved walkways and public toilets, add some ticket booths and refreshment stands, and a sombre death trap can be made into a pleasant Sunday tourist spot. The new improved Jallianwala Bagh memorial has effectively erased traces of the massacre and left only a bagh for tourists to enjoy.

Unable to live in history’s looming shadow Indian memory is too often erroneously erected into monumental misjudgements. The government’s failure to comprehend the difference between a statue and a sculpture for instance makes the colossal Sardar Patel in Gujarat merely one-dimensional, as if a child with a stroke of monumental play increased a toy to giant size. Rather than a convincing monument to the man’s greatness, nature’s naturally monumental setting makes Sardar Patel into a comic figure, dwarfed and desecrating the Gujarat countryside.

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Located in Gujarat’s Narmada district, the Statue of Unity is 3.5 km away from Kevadia town. Photo: PTI

The inability to distinguish between fact and fiction, picture and abstraction, makes most of our monuments into flaws of interpretation. What is the difference between Mayawati’s memorials to herself and Jayalalitha’s cardboard cut outs used in election campaigns? Other than two distinct historic personalities, is there any distinction between Sardar Patel in rural Gujarat and Shivaji in the Arabian Sea? Is there in fact any fundamental difference between the promenade at Marine Drive and the gardens at Central Vista? Every public space, every public monument in India eventually becomes the setting for a family picnic. A significant site’s history is never accorded the reverence it deserves; but it does allows us a convenient mask to escape a hurtful reality.

I end again with another trip made in the Southern US last year. A memorial to the thousands of African Americans lynched in the American deep south had opened in Montgomery, Alabama, some years earlier. While walking from the parking lot, I wondered how the memory of those killed by the Ku Klux Klan – hung by a rope tied to a tree – could be effectively conveyed in a sculpted monument a hundred years later. Yet, the monument – conceived as a solemn re-enactment of the lynching act in abstraction – was a gut-wrenching emotional experience. An open structure of hanging stone slabs, each bearing the name of a victim was so powerful a commemoration, it left visitors drowned in uncomfortable and stunned silence as they walked through. Everyone emptied out to the parking lot without a word.

National Memorial for Peace and Justice, where victims of lynching are memorialised in Montgomery, Alabama. Photo: Soniakapadia/Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 4.0

What then can be done with the Jallianwala memorial at this stage? If the Ministry of Culture has any shame over this expensive public desecration of a national monument, it will open up the project to a competition of ideas. Artists, historians and ordinary citizens should be invited to come up with proposals to restore and resurrect the site. If and when that happens, all ideas should be given a serious public viewing in the National Museum. An acceptance of one such idea selected by the descendants of those killed at the site would then call for a fresh renovation of the government renovation. To give added archaeological respectability, the remaining proposals should be finally buried in the well at Jallianwala Bagh. To mix with the deep dark earth – the sombre site of history.