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.”