The Jallianwala Bagh Journals review: The small voices of history

Sarmistha Dutta Gupta’s powerful new book, ‘The Jallianwala Bagh Journals’, grapples with the question of erecting memorials versus memory

On this day, exactly 105 years ago, a peaceful crowd gathered at Amritsar’s Jallianwala Bagh during the annual Vaisakhi fair to protest against the draconian Rowlatt Act. Formally known as the Anarchical and Revolutionary Crimes Act of 1919, this British law gave the police the power to detain, arrest and imprison without trial any person suspected of committing “revolutionary crimes”, a nebulous and all-encompassing category of offences.

Punjab had already faced the worst brunt of colonial brutality since the early decades of the century, as hundreds of men were rounded up and conscripted for the British effort in World War I. But on 13 April 1919, the atrocities peaked to an unprecedented level. Under instructions from Brigadier General R.E.H. Dyer, the police opened fire on the gathering, killing hundreds in the next few minutes and unleashing a reign of terror on the citizens for days on end. The official figure of casualties was 379, though the actual number is likely to be in the thousands.

Cut to the 2000s and the fields of death have transformed into a tourist spot. As writer Sarmistha Dutta Gupta recalls in her powerful new book, The Jallianwala Bagh Journals, during her visit to the site in 2016, she saw, “people swarming inside the Jallianwala Bagh. The lawn inside was curated, and even topiaries of sepoys stood with guns. People were busy taking pictures in front of the topiary and clicking selfies in front of the bullet-marked wall. Some people had opened their picnic hampers in the garden and listened to loud music. The inside thrummed with crowds, and flashy shops lined the outside.”

The people of a country are a product of their times. Most of them take their cues from the state. In 1961, under Jawaharlal Nehru’s government, a memorial was built on the killing fields of Jallianwala Bagh, a move that Rabindranath Tagore, who relinquished his knighthood to protest against the tragedy, had strongly objected to until his death in 1941. The poet was not opposed to preserving the memory of the event, as Dutta Gupta points out, but rather to the idea of “monumentalising memory”. In his prescient address to the Congress in April 1920, later published in Modern Review, he had made his position abundantly clear: “Let those who wish, try to burden the minds of the future with stones, carrying the black memory of anger, but let us bequeath to the generations to come only those memorials which we can revere.”

Tagore’s apprehension about the generational burden of the “black memory of anger” has come to haunt us in more ways than he could have imagined. One of the unique strengths of Dutta Gupta’s book is her ability to connect the dots between 1919 and 2020s India, via the Partition of 1947, tracing the bitter legacy of state oppression from colonial times to the present. Contemporary India is riddled with “Jallianwala Baghs”, a stand-in for the myriad forms of violence that citizens have had to face at the hands of subsequent governments in independent India.

The Jallianwala Bagh Journals: By Sarmistha Dutta Gupta, Jadavpur University Press,  256 pages,  <span class=₹1,200″/>

The Jallianwala Bagh Journals: By Sarmistha Dutta Gupta, Jadavpur University Press, 256 pages, 1,200

From the farmers’ protest against the agricultural black laws to the plight of migrant workers during the pandemic, the spectacle of suffering crowds appears with a terrifying regularity in the annals of India’s living history. However, instead of taking a dry academic look into the social and political narratives of Jallianwala Bagh, Dutta Gupta presents her years-long research in the form of a journal. The result is refreshingly authentic and powerful. Not only does she bring in a profusion of unheard voices, along with images, through her extensive use of oral history, but she also contextualises many of modern India’s present crises in the light of its complicated past.

Dutta Gupta’s journals trace their origins in an earlier project that she had co-created with artist and scholar Sanchayan Ghosh in 2020. Bringing history and art together, Ways Of Remembering Jallianwala Bagh And Rabindranth Tagore’s Response To The Massacre had opened at the Victoria Memorial Hall in Kolkata in March 2020. It was an ambitious installation project, drawing on a massive collective effort of researchers, artisans and artists. The entire setup, laid out on a blood-red carpet, subverting the usual symbolism of the red carpet, was audaciously imagined. Images, recordings, texts, stories in multiple media brought together a whole tapestry of feeling inside the Portrait Gallery, looked over by the watchful eyes of long-dead colonial gentry. Sadly, the show, which was meant to be a public history project, was shut down within days due to the outbreak of the covid-19 pandemic.

In its afterlife as a book, the project has not only gained more definition, through the descriptive passages that Dutta Gupta puts in to elaborate the concept, its scope and execution, but also in its ability to trigger a wealth of emotions in the reader. Particularly, her close attention to the forgotten faces of history is deeply affecting. In an early chapter, for instance, she describes meeting the late Prof. V.N. Datta, then in his 90s, one of the great historians of Jallianwala Bagh. The elderly man, who could only speak for 10 minutes due to his failing health, broke down remembering the events that happened a century back.

Especially moving are Dutta Gupta’s attempt to record the voices of women, who have been erased from the narrative of the massacre. The story of Attar Kaur, the widow who sat all night with the corpse of her husband and offered water to the dying, is part of the lore of Jallianwala Bagh. But the moment suddenly leaps out of the pages of history as Dutta Gupta and her fellow researchers track down, after much effort, the house where Kaur had spent her final days. From Usha Devi, a former tenant of the house, Dutta Gupta learns about the British government’s attempts to “compensate” Kaur twice, only to be rebuffed by the brave widow. “She didn’t sell her husband’s sacrifice in lieu of 50,000,” Usha Devi says, even though Kaur was expecting her youngest son at the time and was already a mother to two other children.

History, in the eyes of the nation-state, tends to reside in the monuments and memorials that have stood the test of time. But a truly human history is made of the small voices of ordinary men and women like Kaur or, as Nehru noted in shorthand on his visit to the site, “Remarkable case of little boy age 5 or so who remained on open roof right through the firing and escaped unhurt. Thought they were fireworks. Walls round about him riddled with bullets.”

Dutta Gupta’s book, taking Tagore’s cue, leaves the reader to grapple with the question of erecting memorials versus memory. In recent years, our government has spruced up the killing fields of Jallianwala Bagh, not only sanitised it into a picnic spot but also twisted the narrative of its heroes. For instance, Udham Singh, a follower of Bhagat Singh who killed Michael O’Dwyer, believed to be the chief architect of the massacre, in 1940, has been depicted at the memorial site as a turbaned Sikh. In reality, he called himself Ram Mohammad Singh Azad, a true embodiment of our syncretic and secular roots. Narratives of our past get rewritten through such subtle but insidious distortions.

As Dutta Gupta puts it with ringing clarity, “Jallianwala Bagh is a symbol of unity among Hindus, Muslims, and Sikhs against an oppressive regime. Perhaps this commercialisation of history by transforming Jallianwala Bagh is an attempt to keep the visitors distracted. Those who are spending taxpayers’ money today to reorient a historic site, may tomorrow hand over the responsibility of the Bagh’s maintenance to a private company.”

All things considered that day may not be far away.

‘Jallianwala Bagh Journals’ will be available online and in bookstores end April.

Somak Ghoshal is a writer and editor based in Delhi.

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