A visit to Jallianwala Bagh 100 years after the 1919 massacre evokes as much rage as gratitude
As the Jallianwala Bagh massacre completes 100 years on 13 April, 1919, no amount of adornment can gloss over the irrevocable loss and the apology that the British still owe India.
The driver of our e-rickshaw, or the 'tuk-tuk' as is referred to locally, manoeuvred us through lanes cramped with passers-by, vendors and protruding shops of bridal wear. Kalirey, or red bangles worn by brides on the wedding day, were up for sale. As we whooshed past the busy lanes, the dazzling red streaks made the tributaries of Golden Temple Road bleed to life.
The joyride ended soon when the tuk-tuk driver suggested (or demanded? The tone was ambiguous) us to walk our way to the main road as the bottleneck traffic in the narrow lanes would delay our arrival to the next stop: Jallianwala Bagh. As the sky turned crimson, we navigated our way towards the main road. With my eyes set on the approaching destination, the corners did manage to catch a glimpse of the interesting surroundings — a bitch feeding four curious puppies and a reluctant stout old woman sweeping pigeon droppings in front of her shop, only to dump it in front of the neighbouring shop.
As my friends dragged me to the entrance of Jallianwala Bagh ("It'll close in an hour. Hurry!"), I found myself gravitating towards a tall marble-white statue in the central square. The faces of some of the people who lost their lives in the 13 April, 1919 massacre stared at me as if they knew me from some place before. While the faces were completely unfamiliar, the visual as a whole looked eerily similar to a pile of pale-white bodies. When I turned around, the front part of Jallianwala Bagh looked no less unnerving. Iron rails and red bricks, along with a suspended air of irrevocable loss, transported me to what a 20th-century jail would look like. The towering black marble figure of Udham Singh, who assassinated the then-Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, Michael O'Dwyer, guards the entrance, ensuring that another Colonel Reginald Dyer never steps foot into the premises again.
A tapering narrow lane led us to the main ground of Jallianwala Bagh. The lane was narrow to the extent that it was difficult to imagine troops of the British Indian Army march their way inside, loaded with ammunition. Pigeons perched inside the roshandaans of those lanes remained silent spectators to our entry, like they would have been to Dyer and his troops 100 years ago. The lane took me back to a couple of films which have depicted the Jallianwala Bagh rather graphically (The Legend of Bhagat Singh and Rang De Basanti). But what the lane led to did not mirror the image in my head at all.
The barren land, which saw scores of unarmed, innocent people fell on it, had been adorned with a green cover. Red stone structures stood erected at every few steps, with the intention of paying tribute to the 'martyrs'. While the glossing over could be justified by arguing that the beautification was only a tribute to those who lost their lives, the soil was too soaked in blood to give birth to new life. The embellishment only served as mockery to the deaths of the 379 people (unofficial figure: 1,000 approximately) and the wounds of 1,100 (unofficial figures: 1,500 approximately) figures. The least the authorities could do was to let the barren land be so that it could justly reflect the dry spell the British colonisers imposed on India for 200 years.
Right when I assumed the ground was all gloss and no gore, I stumbled upon a small pyramid structure that screamed, "People were fired at from here". When I looked back up, my eye met yet another gaping hole that stared right back at me. Several feet away, a red brick wall stood with white rectangular marks all over it, pointing at the remnants of the bullet shots (that lasted 1,650 rounds of firing) that the British Army unleashed on the scores of people who had congregated on Baisakhi for a peaceful protest against the arrest of two close associates. They silently protested against the draconian Rowlatt Act, never realising even once that they would end up as victims of the same law.
Who were victims then, were being hailed as martyrs now. But they never signed up to be martyrs. Some of them would have just been there to accompany a family member or a friend on the occasion of Baisakhi. And the others were there to protest against a tyrannical law while adhering to Gandhian principles. They were never prepared to be fired at, like say a soldier is, who goes to the battlefield fully aware of the low probability of his return. Was it right then to gloss over their losses by declaring them as martyrs? Maybe they just wanted to be peace-abiding citizens of a colonised country.
With these tussling thoughts, I proceed to the 'martyrs' well'. Dozens of people who were being fired at jumped into the well then either as an instinctive defence mechanism or in a deliberate move of defiance to save themselves the dishonour of being killed by the British. Another red structure housed the well that once held a pile of pale white bodies. As I tried to peep into the inkiness, I was held back by the window railings of the red structure. It reined in my curiosity to measure how deep the well was.
In that moment, it struck me. The red structure that prevented me from even peeping into the well, let alone jumping into it, did not just serve the purpose of beautification. All the red instalments, like the green cover, constituted a reminder of how privileged I was to witness a world so secure, peaceful and pretty. The overbearing grief the history of the place posed slowly faded into gratitude towards those who laid their lives, voluntarily or otherwise, for a greener tomorrow. Hundred years ago, the Jallianwala Bagh massacre triggered the Non-Cooperation Movement. A century later, it continues to stir something within. It is tough to determine if that emotion is rage or gratitude, or just blood-soaked rage under the green cover of gratitude.
All images by Devansh Sharma.
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