Even in 2016, Jallianwala Bagh renovations did little to evoke the horrors of mass murder

In an advertisement issued in November 2016, Punjab’s deputy chief minister, Sukbhir Singh Badal, claimed to have recieved divine instructions to renovate the surroundings of the Harmandir Sahib. SANDEEP SHARMA/HINDUSTAN TIMES
01 September, 2021

On 28 August, Narendra Modi inaugurated the renovated Jallianwala Bagh memorial complex in Amritsar, which now includes a “light and sound” show. British troops, led by Brigadier General Dyer, had killed over 379 people in April 1919 at the Jallianwala Bagh. Several individuals—including academics and politicians—have criticised the renovated memorial, stating that it compromises on the spirit of a memorial for a massacre and terming it an attempt to erase a tragedy. 

At the end of 2016, Hartosh Singh Bal, the political editor of The Caravan, had visited iconic spots in Punjab, including the Jallianwala Bagh memorial, that were being renovated under the then ruling Shiromani Akali Dal government. In the following excerpt from his January 2017 cover story, “Under a Cloud,” Bal writes that during his visit to the memorial, he saw one installation that was “an aesthetic horror, no doubt, but one that did little to evoke the horrors of colonial mass murder.”

IN EARLY NOVEMBER, the Punjab government issued double-spread advertisements in a number of major newspapers, announcing that the city of Amritsar had been made over “as part of Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal’s dream project.” The advertisement claimed that the “Rs 210 crore endeavour has stunningly transformed the area around the iconic spots: the Town Hall, Jallianwala Bagh and Sri Harmandir Sahib”—referring, respectively, to a colonial-era administrative building, the walled public garden that was the site of a horrific massacre in 1919, and the central shrine of Sikhism, which includes the Golden Temple. “The once crowded corridor,” the advertisement continued, “is now a grandiosely designed ‘Heritage Walkway’ dotted with surreal aura statues of historical figures, architecturally refurbished buildings and giant LEDs live streaming kirtans from Sri Darbar Sahib”—the name Sikhs use for the temple complex.

A few days later, I drove from Delhi to Amritsar. Visitors now enter the city through an elaborate arched golden gate, and, if they are headed to the shrine, climb onto an overpass and travel on it for several kilometres, leaving the city’s choked traffic underneath. They then take an exit that leads directly to the third floor of a multi-level parking lot near the Harmandir Sahib complex. From here, stairs lead down to the renovated walkway. The new flyover allows visitors to skim over the chaotic mess they once had to wade through to reach the shrine. But the route and the complex at the end of it can leave one feeling that the shrine has been whisked away from Amritsar into some Disney fantasy.

In the government advertisement, a statement by the deputy chief minister explained the motivation for the “Heritage Walkway” project. “Once in a life-time, everyone gets an inspirational call from God,” he proclaimed. “In a flash, this reveals to us the purpose of our being born.” He himself had had such a moment, he recounted, one morning in Amritsar, as he “was walking barefoot near Sri Harmandir Sahib.”

The shrine, Sukbhir said, “stands like the Heart of God Himself beating for humanity.” But devotees who visited it were “struck and saddened by the painful contrast of the divine splendor of the sacred shrine with images of narrow lanes, unkempt and ill-maintained shops and buildings and chaotic surroundings.” Sukhbir, too, was weighed down by such thoughts as he “walked under the starlit sky early that morning. Then, suddenly the moment turned into an inspirational experience. I felt a voice directing me to accept ‘seva’ to transform and beautify the whole place.” Having received this directive, “With strength bestowed on me by Akal Purakh, the blessings of the great Guru Sahiban and the sangat in Guru’s own image I undertook this seva. The rest is history.”

Sukbhir effectively claimed he had received divine revelation—something no Sikhs other than the Gurus have claimed in the 500-year history of their religion. In contrast, when Maharaja Ranjit Singh, the nineteenth-century founder of the Sikh Empire, renovated the complex and gave the central temple its golden covering, he put an inscription on the entrance gate that reads simply, “The gracious Guru through his benevolence considering Sri Maharaj Singh Sahib as his loving follower and servant got this work executed by him.”

I strolled ahead on the “grandiosely designed” walkway, curious to see if the new constructions warranted the advertisement’s florid tone. I realised quickly that they did, and that the word “surreal” in the advertisement was not out of place. Gleaming Victorian streetlamps lit up renovated facades of red sandstone. At the centre of a square, on a marble pedestal, a statue of Ranjit Singh towered over everything around it, including another nearby statue, of BR Ambedkar clutching the constitution, striding over a replica of the parliament building in Delhi. One restored bank building was flanked by stately Roman columns, while, some metres ahead, a McDonald’s outlet sported the familiar plastic golden arches of the brand’s logo. A few hundred yards away stood the refurbished Jallianwala Bagh memorial, a tribute to the hundreds who had been murdered there on the orders of General Reginald Dyer. One installation comprised a flame-shaped marble cloud embossed with grimacing faces, with a hole in the centre in which stood a golden replica of a burning torch—an aesthetic horror, no doubt, but one that did little to evoke the horrors of colonial mass murder.

After a dazed day spent wandering through Sukhbir’s vision, I made my way to the city’s Guru Nanak Dev University to meet Balvinder Singh, a professor in the Guru Ram Das School of Planning, and an expert on Amritsar’s heritage and history, and the various attempts over recent decades to renovate the surroundings of the Golden Temple. I was unsure what to expect, having learnt that, in Punjab, the mention of Sukhbir’s name was often enough to silence any open criticism

I drove past the open spaces of the sprawling university, dotted with brick buildings, to arrive at the school of planning, tucked away at the rear of the campus. The professor, a soft-spoken Sikh, was seated at his desk, reading through a preprint of a recent paper of his on Amritsar’s heritage. He had no hesitation in expressing his views on the renovations.

“The whole project is very artificial, from the ugly Rs 8-crore gate at the entry to the town to the sandstone facades constructed along the heritage corridor,” he said. “They should have taken inspiration from the old streets of the town, rather than using Jaipur sandstone. They should have been sensitive to the city. Old buildings have been demolished, and marble has been used thoughtlessly. The idea should have been to preserve, not cleanse. I say this not because Sukhbir is involved but because rationally, as a professional, I find the project is wrong.”

Then his voice dropped, and he spoke as a man of faith. “The spirit of a place, its identity, is important,” he said. “Walking along the corridor, I find the vibration of the sacred has disappeared. Dil nu chubda hai. (It hurts the heart.) The spirit of the place has been drained out.”

This is an extract from The Caravan’s January 2017 cover story, “Under a Cloud.”