A few meters away from the Golden Temple and its Central Sikh Museum, stands the Jallianwalla Bagh, a name that is historic in the nationalist struggle as an example of the atrocities of the colonial power against the colonised and a symbol of non-violent struggle for freedom of Indian people. I first came to know about Jallianwalla Bagh through the illustrated comics of Amar Chitra Katha and read about it in my history texts later on. In both of these readings, it was not a bagh (garden) but always an event – an event of mindless massacre where all the gates of the place were shut closed and the gathering indiscriminately fired at. The name Jallianwalla Bagh is followed by an ever present mental suffix of ‘massacre’ for me and for many Indians. The view from the other side tends to minimise it as the ‘Amritsar incident’ as mentioned in an episode of popular Downton Abbey aired on Star World channel.
The 1919 ‘incident’ of British colonialism was commemorated by the Indian nation born in 1947 with the setting up of a memorial named ‘the Flame of Liberty’. The plate on the red brick wall at the entry that marks off the Jallianwalla Bagh from the adjoining busy market reads:
‘Jallianwalla Bagh Massacre involved the killing of hundreds of unarmed, defenceless Indians by a senior British Military officer, Brigadier General Reginald Edward Harry Dyer on 13th April, 1919 at this spot in the holy city of Amritsar. The Jallianwalla Bagh was then the property of Sardar Himmat Singh, a noble in the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. General Dyer deployed his riffle men, near the entrance and without warning or order the crowd to disperse, opened fire. the firing continued for 20 minutes and 1650 rounds of 0.303 Mark VI ammunition had been fired. The official figure is 379 killed and 1,200 wounded. The crowd was estimated at 15,000 to 20,000. The Jallianwalla Bagh was acquired by the nation on 1st August 1920 at the cost of Rs. 5.65/- and the memorial befittingly named ‘the flame of liberty’ was built at the cost of Rs. 9.25/-lakhs. It was inaugurated by Dr. Rajendra Prassad, the first President of Republic India in the presence of Pt. Jawahar Lal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India on 13th April 1961.’
The entry is a small gate along the red brick wall that separates it from the lines of shops in the busy market adjoining the Golden Temple. The gate opens out to the garden that is surrounded by residential buildings. A few steps inside, there is a small concrete pyramid in the middle of the pathway leading further into the garden. It is engraved with the words ‘people were fired at from here’ in Hindi and English. A few steps to the right side of this pyramid, a flame burns on a slightly elevated domed pedestal. The focal point of the garden landscape is a four sided phallic structure. I looked around to see if there were any information on this structure but I could find none. From an internet search later, I learnt that this was the Flame of Liberty (though I seem to remember the caption under the burning flame on the pedestal at the entrance and had wondered how that small flame could have cost 9.25 lakhs around the time it was constructed). I still am not sure who designed it.
A little further as we walk in towards the concrete flame, there is a five-panelled notice – two in English, one in Hindi, one in Urdu and another one in Punjabi. One of the notices in English is a directive on decorum and rules within the premises. the other one announces that the place is saturated with the blood of thousands of Indian patriots martyred in a non-violent peaceful struggle against the tyranny of British rule. The crowd had gathered to protest against the Rowlatt Act. While the notice at the entrance says that the nation purchased the property in 1920 (before Independence), this notice says that it was purchased under the resolution of the Indian National Congress.
Using the information on the plates within the campus, the historical significance of the Jallianwalla Bagh is the markings left behind by the bullet fired under Gen. Dyer’s command. Besides the concrete pyramid at the entry from which point the bullets were fired, there are three areas where the bullet marks of the firing have been kept alive. There is no way one can miss them. The standing walls are protected from visitors by glass partitions and an information plate reiterates the evidence as witness of the event. each bullet mark has been counted, highlighted in little white square boxes and mapped.
The bagh was a private property of the family of Sardar Himmat Singh until it was purchased in 1920 following the massacre of 1919. Contrary to its name, the plates say that there was no garden (bagh) but that it was a ‘vacant’ plot of land. Interestingly this official view does not seem to register the little structure standing in the middle of the plot whose bullet-ridden walls are now protected by a glass partition and an information plate tells us that the bullet marks were evidence of the firing. It also does not register the well where many people jumped into to escape the rain of bullets. This despite the fact that the well has now been restructured into the ‘Martyr’s Well’ as a homage.
Written boldly in red on peach background, the caption at the well reads ‘Martyr’s Well’ in Hindi, Punjabi and English. A little below this bold caption is another caption in a much smaller font. It reads, ‘Let us pay homage to the Nation’s martyrs’ in English. This nationalism is not Sikh nationalism but Indian nationalism that grew against its colonial British masters and a signpost to the historical journey of the Indian freedom movement. If there are any further doubts, this is cleared by the slogans of ‘Jai Hind’ and ‘Vande Mataram’ in Hindi assembled with stones onto the garden landscape.
Separated by a few meters spatially, the Central Sikh museum and the Jallianwalla Bagh seem to belong to two different worlds speaking two different languages. Both however revolve around the poles of violence and nationalism by engaging materiality (paintings & bullet marks) to keep alive a memory.