Jallianwallah Bagh renovation: Why history should never be beautified

Only a government that believes in turning every serious issue into an event and is ill-conversant with the history of India will seek to obliterate the reality of a massacre

Jallianwallah Bagh renovation: Why history should never be beautified

Sujata Anandan

When I saw pictures of beautiful tiles being used to prettify the Jallianwallah Bagh entrance, my mind flew back to Auschwitz, Buchenwald, Dachau and other Nazi concentration camps where the tiles of the torture chambers have been preserved in all their stark reality.

The platforms where the prisoners were tortured were probably made of concrete but to beautify (sic!) them the Nazis had laid tiles across the entire structure. In those days, I guess, the only tiles available were plain white square ones.

In later years, post-Independence, many Indian bathrooms were thus tiled from floor to ceiling and my first sight of those torture platforms reminded me of our old bathrooms. A closer look soon disabused me of the idea. For while our tiled bathrooms were pristine white and clean as clean can be, the tiles on these torture platforms were browned and the joints between them were black as black can be.

I later learned the spotting and browning was caused by blood as was the blacking of the joints. A shiver ran through me and I broke out in goose bumps – I had visited these camps turned into museums in the early 1990s and to see the blood-stained torture platforms nearly half a century later preserved in all the horror of their existence gave me sleepless nights though by birth, age, nationality and era I was far removed from those events and should not have been affected at all.

Jallianwallah Bagh renovation: Why history should never be beautified

There were other artefacts in those museums – apart from the bunkers, the tin cups and spoons, blood-stained bandages, some ragged clothing, some instruments of torture, all equally designed to keep one awake at nights. But it was some photographs at those museums that were unforgettable -- of a near-naked young but wizened shaven-headed man sitting on the torture platform looking as if he would cry, a handcart piled high with bodies of the tortured who had died, prisoners lined up in attendance for the camp commander...

The very air at those museums carried the smell of fear and death so many years later that was hard to get over for even someone like me who should have had no connect with the situation.

When I asked the curator at one of those museums why these camps should have been preserved in all their stark reality and not razed down decades ago, he said just three words, “Lest we forget.”

His contention was that the men who perpetrated the bestialities on fellow human beings were not quite uncivilised or unrefined. They drank the best wines, ate the best foods, read the best books, collected the best paintings – all by night. Yet by day, they were worse than even animals and even beat Satan in their devilry.

Hence the museums were being preserved in all their starkness to remind future generations that men as evil as these once existed and should never be allowed to rise again.

The Jallianwallah Bagh massacres happened a few years before the advent of Hitler in Europe and there is little comparison between the Nazi camps and that single meeting at the Bagh. But when I think of what the curator at that museum told me – of so-called men of refinement being evil by day and civilised by night-- I cannot help but think of the British colonial rulers who laid pretensions to all such refinements and yet could be as evil as General Reginald Dyer.

He massacred hundreds of people holding a peaceful meeting simply to get even with one or two ruffians who had molested a British woman in one of the lanes of Amritsar – thereafter Indians using that lane had to crawl on all fours. Although he was also condemned by the British parliament and dismissed from service, he was proud of his military heritage and was a trigger-happy man ready to shoot unarmed harmless individuals at a moment's notice for disobeying his unsustainable orders.

The Jallianwallah Bagh massacre was so stark and evil, the memorial that is being restored should actually be preserved in all its horror and bullet-ridden walls and grounds. But why are pretty flowers being planted over the bullet holes and murals of laughing people decorating the walls as though those who died at the Bagh had come there for a picnic and not for a sombre occasion?

Only a government that believes in turning every serious issue – like even a surgical strike – into an event and is ill-conversant with the history of India would seek to obliterate the reality of a massacre that changed the course of British rule in India, embarrassed the colonial rulers before the world and speeded up their exit from India, and, as a consequence, from many other countries they had ruled.

I have no connect with Germany, yet its stark concentration camps can still give me goose bumps. India's future generations, who will be that much more distant from the Jallianwallah Bagh massacre need to realise the extent of General Dyer's butchery and the perfidy of the British administration in Amritsar who passed a law against public gatherings after the massacre to justify General Dyer's actions.

Beautiful tiles and pretty flowers are suited more to public bathrooms and community gardens than to the sight of a massacre. This obsession with beauty – like I heard someone eats very expensive mushrooms every day to keep his skin fair and lovely – is a sickness that India can ill afford. It is this mental inequilibrium which seeks to build personal glory on the miseries of the common people that is essentially responsible for pushing us into the abyss that we are in today.

Like the curator of that German museum told me, “Your goosebumps are a testimony to the fact that we have preserved our history in its entirety. Every sleepless night spent by future generations visiting these camps are a return for the sufferings of the prisoners who never slept at all, wondering what tomorrow might bring for them.”

The survivors of Jallianwallah Bagh may have had similar sleepless nights wondering what General Dyer, the cruellest administrator in British India, might have had in store for them the next day. Denying the starkness of that reality and beautifying the remnants of General Dyer's devilry is very anti-national, though Dyer himself might be smiling down today on the beautiful tiles and pretty flowers. Thus is history turned on its head and future generations misled.

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