Jallianwala Bagh continues to inspire`

Prajakta Joshi
Sunday, 14 April 2019

“After the national uprising of 1857, perhaps this was the incident that caused a major upheaval across the country at the time. India’s freedom struggle gained momentum like never before after April 13, 1919,” said Historian S Irfan Habib.

For historians and a sentimental lot of history lovers and curious readers, a visit to the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar is an emotional roller coaster. The Bagh today is a beautiful memorial, a shrine to its victims. Neither the lanes leading to the park where thousands were killed in an inhuman firing nor the green and well-maintained park that it has been converted into, define ‘massacre’ that the place witnessed 100 years ago. However, the incident that changed the course of Indian history forever still has an impact over the three generations of Indians that have followed since.

“After the national uprising of 1857, perhaps this was the incident that caused a major upheaval across the country at the time. India’s freedom struggle gained momentum like never before after April 13, 1919,” said Historian S Irfan Habib.

On a dreadful day, 100 years ago, the British forces under Colonel Reginald Dyer relentlessly shot at a peaceful gathering of people in Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar. On the day of Baisakhi (harvest festival of Punjab), the crowd had gathered in a peaceful protest against the detention of national leaders from Amritsar, Dr Satya Pal and Dr Saifuddin Kitchlew. Forcing their way in through the only narrow entrance of the park, the forces opened fire at the people, without giving a single warning or a chance to disperse.

“He was there to kill. He did not mean to let the people disperse, but to kill them,” Habib stated.
“The action by the British government was highly against the situation at the time,” Dr Lokendra Singh Chundawat, Associate Professor at Government Post Graduate College, Chittorgarh, Rajasthan said.
World War I had ended and the Indians had helped the British Raj a lot then. They now expected, that in return, the Raj would help bring some development.

“Even though the gathering was against the Rowlatt Act that stopped people from getting together at any public place, they were all unarmed. They did not have to be killed,” Chundawat asserted.

He added that the incident revolutionised the approach of the Indians towards the freedom struggle. “The Indian National Congress (INC) had faith in the British Raj. They wanted to make India better through education under the Raj, and then ask for freedom. However, this incident shook the whole faith, and a new wave of nationalism and freedom struggle began,” he added.

What was more horrifying than the incident was probably the apathy of the British Raj to own up the damage inflicted by their forces. While over 1,500 people are suspected to have lost their lives, the colonisers had conveniently reported less than 500 casualties. Reports have stated that 1,650 rounds of bullets were fired. “Not only did the Hunter Committee formed to assess the incident gave a clean chit to Dyer, but he was also hailed as a protector of the Raj. It took 100 years for the British government to condemn one of the most unforgivable incidents in British-Indian history,” Chundawat added.

While an apology from the British government, demanded by the Indians, is overdue, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom (UK) Theresa May, recently, said that the ‘tragedy was a shameful scar on British Indian history.’

“We deeply regret what happened and the suffering caused. As Her Majesty the Queen (Elizabeth II) said before visiting Jallianwala Bagh in 1997, it is a distressing example of our past history with India,” she said.

Habib said the incident left a lasting impact on the minds of the Indians. It probably continues to do so today also in some way or the other.

“It transformed our freedom struggle. Even now when we think about the massacre, we think about the sacrifices that thousands of Indians made on that fateful day. It is an inspiration to the feeling of nationalism,” Habib added.

For the newer generations, however, the appeal of the place seems to have changed. The Martyr’s Well 
inside the Bagh, where the victims fell to death is a shrine. People toss coins in, at the same time clicking selfies outside it.
 
The martyr’s memorial, the wall full of bullet holes, a horrifying reminder of the incident too are now selfie points for the youngsters. The tiny museum that the visitors have to pass through before exiting does not seem to garner as much interest.

“History is past, and it helps build the present. Even though it has become a selfie point, I am sure it still has an impact over the younger generations. We all know that this is where our ancestors lost their lives,” Chundawat concluded.

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