Why Popular Local Memory of Jallianwala Bagh Doesn't Fit the National Narrative

The construction of a definitive history of Jallianwala Bagh obfuscates the complex truths of the massacre.

This article is part of The Wire‘s series, Memories of a Massacre, to mark the centenary of the Jallianwala Bagh killings.

The Sikh cop at the gate leads me to the narrow ‘Historical Lane’ to Jallianwala Bagh. He tells me that General Dyer had brought guns and troops through this constricted passage to shoot the innocent crowd that had assembled in the Bagh on April 13, the day of Baisakhi which is celebrated with much fanfare in Punjab. “There were no exit points,” he says. “People in panic ran to the walls to escape. They jumped into the khoo (well).”

As I entered the Bagh, I was taken over by mixed feelings. It looked like an insignificant garden with some old trees abutted with residential buildings at the back. The garden exudes a troubling aura. The structures and images speak another story. To the right is the Amar Jyoti burning with the emblem, Vande Mataram. There is also an old samadhi with a dome.

At the centre of the Bagh stands an impressive oblong shaped Smarak (Martyrs’ Memorial). And to its right is the deadly khoo. Further down is the passage to the Martyrs’ Gallery and a museum. The bullet-ridden wall represents the most horrific memory. The gaping marks are a tragic testimony to Dyer’s savagery in the Bagh. They are all too visible. The plaque says:

The wall has its own historic significance as it has thirty-six bullet marks which can be easily seen at present and these were fired into the crowd by the order of General Dyer. Moreover, no warning was given to disperse before Dyer opened fire which [sic] was gathered here against the Rowlatt Act. One Thousand Six Hundred and Fifty Rounds were fired.

Then I walked towards the Martyrs’ Well, which invokes painful emotions. For many, it symbolises the suffering of the ‘martyrs’ to whom homage is paid by dropping coins in it. Others gather around it out of curiosity, unaware of its significance as a relic of a terrifying memory of the massacre.

The Martyrs’ Well. Credit: Nonica Datta

The Martyrs’ Gallery and the adjoining museum narrate the story of Indian nationalism and patriotism, with the portraits of national and provincial political leaders, a polished narrative of Congress agitation and the reign of terror unleashed by Michael O’Dwyer, the Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, and General Dyer’s savagery in the city of Amritsar.

I was struck by Udham Singh’s commanding presence in the Bagh. His ashes are kept in the museum and his massive statue towers over the main entrance of the garden. In the plaque, he is portrayed as being present in the Bagh at the time of the massacre and valorised for killing O’Dwyer in London in 1940. His eventual hanging bestows upon him the status of an avenger, warrior and a martyr.

The crowd around Udham Singh’s ashes in Jallianwala Bagh Museum. Credit: Nonica Datta

The Bagh shapes a national memory and constructs a national past through a patchwork of myth and history, fact and fiction. As Madan Lal Vij, the city’s local historian, says, “After the kand (episode), Jallianwala Bagh became a historic garden and a national memorial.”

The city’s local tragedy is fashioned as a national crisis through the idea of shahadat (martyrdom). A white flame-like structure stands with the faces of the ‘martyrs’ and their names engraved underneath on a wide marbled platform. The compound surrounding the Jallianwala Bagh is part of a heritage site connecting it with the Golden Temple and the Town Hall. The Congress narrative, as shown in the plaque, makes a direct connection between the massacre and the Rowlatt Act.

The White Flame (victims) in the galliara (corridor) outside Jallianwala Bagh. Credit: Nonica Datta

A complex truth

Obviously, the construction of a definitive history of Jallianwala Bagh obfuscates the complex truths of the massacre which contain unresolved contradictions and ambiguities. One such ambiguity is the nationalist attempt to forge a direct connection between the crowd in the Bagh and the anti-Rowlatt Act protests.

However, the irony is that to represent the crowd as agitators alone would authenticate the claims of Dyer and official histories and do massive injustice to the plural memories and differentiated experience of the victims. “It was a random crowd, some were playing cards, others had come to celebrate the Baiskahi mela,” says the octogenarian Om Prakash Seth from Katra Ahluwalia. “It was not a political meeting,” adds Trilok Chand, one of the oldest booksellers at Hall Bazaar.

Udham Singh’s history in the Bagh presents yet another dilemma.  It is doubtful whether he was present in the Bagh at the time of the massacre. Doubtless, Jallianwala Bagh as a historical site is primarily dominated by Gandhi’s satyagraha and Udham Singh’s martyrdom.

A portrait of Udham Singh in the museum. Credit: Nonica Datta

The constructed history of the Bagh tends to ignore diverse echoes and voices. Little do we know of all those who were in the Bagh. People’s memories too are shifting now. Dyer’s shooting is no longer central to their recollections. They feel excluded from the mainstream history of Jallianwala Bagh. The locals see themselves as victims of the state that let them down consistently since 1919.

Popular memory

Amritsar’s popular memory of the massacre is layered. Many struggle to be a part of the killings and claim that their families were present in the Bagh on that fateful day. Other voices express complete disillusionment: “Who cares for the dead?”

Vijay Kohli, a munim (accountant) in the vicinity, remembers, “My father was in the jalsa, but luckily he was saved. Mar gaye jere marne wale si, koi nahi parvah karda? (The dead are long gone, who bothers now?)” The tales of victimhood suggest the difficulty of distinguishing between the real and the imagined victims. They contest the powerful linear discourse of any persuasion – nationalist and colonial.

Ironically, many locals seek to disassociate themselves from Jallianwala Bagh. Sidharth from the nearby Krishna Market says, “Jallianwala Bagh is a historical monument, a heritage walk site, I never go there.” Shyam Sundar, a local merchant, elaborates on the state of the katras (market squares) adjoining the monument which are in a pathetic condition. “The politicians never visit the katras amidst which lay the Bagh once upon a time. The heritage complex and the galliara (corridor) have severed the connection with the katras.”

Historical lane from where Dyer brought his troops on April 13, 1919. Credit: Nonica Datta

For the officials of the Bagh, April 13 is the moment to pay homage to the nation’s freedom fighters and commemorate the commanding political event. But for the people of Amritsar, April 13 is a local reference point to confront their historical insecurities and express their cauldron of grievances, hardships and obstacles. These muted voices wrestle to lay claim to the legacy of the massacre and to forget and challenge the dominant, rarefied versions of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre.

In such myriad and fragmented testimonies, Dyer’s atrocity somewhat fades. A narrative of victimhood soaked in a vocabulary of exclusion and oppression pervades. The shift from a focus on Dyer’s kand as the source of their trauma to blaming the successive ruling dispensations for their fate is what shapes the public memory of Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar today.

While the mainstream and nationalist narrative is obsessed with numbers in terms of how many were killed amongst those present in the garden, in the popular imagination figures do not matter. But memories of the ‘real victims’ of the violence do have a lingering presence in family and community histories of the city and adjoining villages.

One such faded memory is that of Bhag Mal Bhatia, who became a victim of Dyer’s gunshots. Usha lives in Bhag Mal Bhatia’s dark house in Mohan Nagar. She narrates to me that when Bhatia was killed, his wife Attar Kaur, with a laltein (lantern), struggled to identify his body in the Bagh. She was pregnant at that time. She dragged the dead body home on her shoulders.

Usha grew up with Attar Kaur’s life story of intense suffering and admirable courage. For the Bhatia community of Lakkarmandi, Attar Kaur is regrettably an unrecognised figure. Having not accepted the compensation from the British Government may account for her absence in the Martyrs’ Gallery in Jallianwala Bagh.

Also read | 25 Years After the Genocide – Quota, Power and Women in Rwanda

Another agonising memory is that of Mahesh Behal’s grandfather, Hari Ram Behal, who was a victim of the massacre. The painful stories about Hari’s victimhood, his sister losing her voice and his wife giving him water during his last breaths, are passed down to every succeeding generation. Behal recalls that Baisakhi since that dark day became amavas for the family. He regrets that apart from him and his siblings, “Kaun yaad karda hai? (Who remembers now?)”

Local victims seldom become big political heroes, even though it is upon their bodies that India’s freedom movement took a decisive turn after 1919. Trilok Chand says, “Azadi esto [Jallianwala Bagh] hi mili sannu (We got freedom because of Jallianwala Bagh).” Behal adds, “All these leaders from Gandhi to Udham Singh emerged because of Jallianwala Bagh, as saadda (our) Amritsar had become a ‘pathar da keel’ (a nail in the coffin) for the British Empire.” The city’s residents feel Gandhi had no role in Amritsar. Saifuddin Kitchlew, the local Punjabi leader, remains the most significant personality for them. They feel that the country has let him down.

The nation commemorates Jallianwala Bagh on April 13, 2019. A hundred years of an event which even today provokes the most traumatic memory of horror and violence, but overshadows the people’s histories and their suffering. Isn’t it time to listen to the unaddressed memories of the people of Amritsar?

Nonica Datta teaches history at Jawaharlal Nehru University.