Jalianwala Bag: Heritage re-made

Jalianwala Bag

Congress leader Rahul Gandhi calls it an ‘insult to the nation.CPI(M) general secretary describes it as “an attempt to erase all traces of British atrocities in India”.It is both and much,much more.It is a shocking yet dead pan attempt to change the very meaning of India’s freedom movement.As objective observers and analysts of colonialism and imperialism have repeatedly underlined, all attempts to airbrush records of both notwithstanding, terror and violence have been the staple of their methods of administration in colonies.In semi-colonies they blithely underwrite barbaric native rulers as long as they protect their interests,which exploit the land and the people of colonies.For the past fifty years and more the nature of American imperialism and its ties with monstrous tyranny and ruthless state terror in client states have been exposed by brave journalists and conscientious scholars as well as by popular off-beat films like HAVANA, starring Jack Lemon.

There is also a certain species of journalism and scholarship that specialize in whitewashing colonialism and imperialism,old and new.The obvious reason is serving to prop up traces and new avatars of current powers playing the same imperialist role.In their turn they are backed by political forces in countries dominated by colonial or neo-colonialism in cahoots with the latter.

The controversial ‘renovation of the Jalianwala Bag memorial belongs to this category.During Congress rule itself the textbooks on world history for higher secondary classes prepared by NCERT in 2011-12 omitted any reference to the century-old anti-colonial struggles in Asia,Africa and Latin America.Besides in textbooks on social science in upper classes of High Secondary and Higher Secondary schools approved officially swept into the corner the world-wide havoc unleashed by colonial and imperialist powers,who in stead were scandalously hailed as the harbingers of ‘globalization’.When some people protested they were just brushed off as old fogeys mouthing outdated slogans.

So,however brazen and revolting,the misdeed is not a sudden meteor-like emanation,but the culmination of a process that began twenty years ago.I am sure Congress would have been much more discreet and genteel on the task,but intentions would not have been radically different.It had become imperative for our ruling classes to tone down and diminish the enormities of colonial rule.On the other hand if democratic people of the country are serious in pursuing their aims they must unwaveringly uphold the truth of that story in all its ghastly blaze.

First,a brief summary of the incident.In March 1919 the British colonial government passed a law notorious as ‘the Rowlatt Act’ over the vehement protests and resignations of Indian members of the colonial legislative chamber with extremely limited powers.Alarmed at the intensification of discontent and resistance among Indians against colonial rule after the First World War,the British introduced preventive detention without trial for two years of anyone the authorities considered inimical to British rule.There was an explosion of anger and violence in Amritsar against the government,following which the government imposed a curfew prohibiting assembly of more than four people for only urgent reasons.But proclamation of the ban on assembly was not widely published,and on the day of the Baisakhi,the Sikh holy festival,hundreds had gathered at Jalianwala Bag.Others had gathered there for a peaceful protest against the arrest of Indian leaders of the freedom movement,Saifuddin Kitchlew and Satya Pal.Gandhijee had been banned from entering the Punjab a few days ago,and people were naturally agitated.But all evidence is there that there were no signs of violence.Yet on that fateful day Brigadier-General Dyer led a company of soldiers to a vantage-ground overlooking the site,took up positions and opened fire without notice in a massacre that killed 479 people in that gathering according to the official Hunter Commission,but 1000 according to the enquiry committee of the Indian National Congress.

The impact of the atrocity had been tremendous.The outrage united Indian masses in their resolve to wrest freedom from British rulers and inflamed the youth to seek retribution.One must underline the fact that there was no difference in reaction all over the geographical extent and across different communities.In far off Assam some leaders were so struck with grief that they observed a fast.Rabindranath Tagore decided over a sleepless night to return the honour of knighthood bestowed on him by the Crown,and was duly pilloried in right-wing British press.On the whole the tragedy galvanized the freedom movement into a new level of momentum and energy.Hence the incident and its legacy form an entire chapter in our freedom movement.

And this is precisely what disturbs the contemporary cronies of neo-colonialism.And of course their foreign patrons.When the Duke of Edinburgh visited the place, in stead of expressing shame and contrition,he is reported to have contested the figures of casualties and insisted the number could not have been more than one hundred and odd.Perhaps it was such reaction from
worthies that has spurred the government to turn the place into a touristy attraction.

This atrocious make-over seems designed to serve several ends apart from saving friends from embarrassment.First it helps to mute and subdue people’s resistance against utter misrule and abolition of rule of law by wilfull governments and dissolve the morale of people fighting for their just rights,equality and liberty.By weakening their hold on proven historical evidence of violence of rulers and the right of resistance of the people against unjust rulers,it hopes to constrict the popular imagination of an ideal order of justice and freedom and accustom them to dumb obedience.The joint resistance of all communities and regions in the country is expected to recede from the foreground of consciousness and an image of internecine feuds either against one community or of mutual mistrust and hatred among all, insidiously replacing it.

Since the anti-colonial struggle, in the sense that modern Indians understand it,and not in the arbitrary sense imposed by saffron brigades of a thousand year old sporadic fight against all foreigners, also carries the legacy of democratic humanist values opposed by all reactionary feudal and communal forces,its absurd trivialization supports desperate and dangerous efforts to restore feudal norms of blind loyalty and blind enmities regardless of the good of the people.

The sheer vulgarity of taste on display also reflects a calculated endeavor to vulgarize and degrade the understanding of the people so that they cannot conceive nobler visions of collective life.

Equally,it promotes a costly diminution of the signal importance of history as a discipline.For by erasing the bullet-marks on the walls and changing the significance of the well into which scores of people had jumped in their desperate attempts to escape the deadly hail of bullets,it shows an utter disregard for history.Let me cite at this point a counter-example.The much-maligned Indira Gandhi during the Emergency had entrusted a team of historians led by S.Gopal to prepare a time-capsule on Indian history since independence for posterity and ceremonially buried it hundreds of feet below earth’s surface.Given to ribbing her with her love of power and sycophancy,her enemies with much fanfare after her fall had exhumed it from the place of burial.To their consternation they did not find any glowing eulogies to her rule to gloat over.Indira Gandhi showed an exemplary respect for history and learning that hostile successors do not seem to have even a tiny speck of.This should bolster the importance of history(and not mythology) as a discipline in any modern nation’s life.

I had expected that the entire community of historians,legions of freedom-fighters,and lovers of culture and heritage will erupt into a resounding protest against this sacrilege.But so far only a few political leaders and some respected historians have recorded their sense of loss and outrage. Some people could also have approached the courts to stop this vandalism and restore historical monuments to their dignity. Has the nation already developed amnesia induced by the drug of constant and widespread divisive,venomous propaganda?

Hiren Gohain is a political commentator

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