When I had begun researching on Jallianwala Bagh, I had no knowledge of Rabindranath Tagore’s views on the idea of a memorial at the Bagh when it was first proposed in 1920. After returning from Amritsar in 2016, many unknown and little-talked-about aspects of the massacre started revealing themselves to me in the course of my work. I learnt that the poet's written message, sent through his friend CF Andrews (1871-1940) for the Bombay session of the Congress in April 1920 and read out by MA Jinnah (1876-1948) who was until then a prominent member of the Congress, clearly stated that the greed for power and clash between nation-states that resulted in the unprecedented First World War, had given rise to gross injustices like the Jallianwala Bagh. It also said that a memorial at the Bagh that would keep alive the black memory of anger was not desirable. In the same year, Tagore elaborated on this in the journal Santiniketan, saying, “It is not a matter of pride for us to commemorate this event in the Punjab … Our rulers have erected memorials of their crimes in Kanpur and Calcutta. Should we imitate them? Wouldn’t such an attempt be our defeat?”

We know that the Kanpur Memorial Garden was built a few years after 125 unarmed English women and children were murdered in the Bibi Ghar during the 1857 Revolt or the First War of Independence. At Viceroy Lord Canning’s initiative, a sculpture was erected at the spot of the well where the lifeless bodies were dumped. Several other such memorials were also built around that time in Lucknow, Kolkata, and other places. The poet opposed the construction of any such memorial of the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre, imitating the imperialist rulers. Our history has practically overlooked this profound anti-colonial stand, and Tagore’s disagreement with Gandhi and the Congress over the memorial at the Bagh has been almost erased.

The poet was opposed to the idea of monumentalising memory and not to the idea of remembering per se. Someone who had composed so many songs and poetry on memory and remembrance could not have been uninterested in reminiscence. In Santiniketan, on the passing of someone who had been a part of the Visva-Bharati community locally or internationally, people would sit together and share memories of the departed. There would be alpana (decorative floor designs typical of South Asia, especially West Bengal in India, and Bangladesh) drawn at the site of such memorial gatherings but the alpana pattern would differ from what was drawn during other festive occasions in Santiniketan. The news bulletins and journals published by Visva-Bharati would carry reports and memory pieces read out at the memorials. But there was never a tradition of erecting busts or any kind of structures to perpetuate memories of those revered and loved. This was completely different from the concept of building memorial parks and memorial columns. For the poet, influencing our collective thinking against war, aggressive nationalism, and all kinds of violence was much more important than supporting the idea of a memorial garden, in imitation of the colonisers, at Jallianwala Bagh.

In response to Tagore's statement at the time, Gandhi wrote:

What Sir Rabindranath Tagore has said is perfectly true, that we shall certainly not advance by keeping alive the memory of General Dyer’s cruelty. To perpetuate the memory of truth, firmness, courage and innocence, wherever these may be found – that is the people’s real duty and in doing so lies the nation’s regeneration.

Gandhi had felt that the memorial would awaken a sense of truth, honesty, courage, and simplicity in the minds of people instead of cultivating hatred and revenge. The memory of those unarmed, innocent people falling prematurely on the ground of the Jallianwala Bagh will be made permanent. In 1920, colonised citizens generously donated to claim the place off the hands of the colonial rulers, so that the evidence of genocide would not be erased. The bullet-riddled wall may still be there as evidence but in post-1947 India, especially over the last 50 years, the site has simply become a shrine of remembrance owned by the State, completely disconnected from family and community memories of the Bagh and narratives about colonial oppression and peoples’ resistance to it in Punjab.

Was our visionary poet able to see that someday, when the memorial at Jallianwala Bagh would pride itself on being a high-profile structure with a huge footfall, the nation-state would ensure that there is no possibility of any “agony of indignation” getting aroused in the hearts of its visitors to authoritarianism and terror?

Had the poet been around today, I believe he would have taken a keen interest in the many post-colonial museums of memories initiated by individuals and collectives in different parts of the world which make visible narratives of colonial, racial, and nationalistic hostility and tyranny. Memory-making with marginalised voices and a greater participation of local interests have taken place, for instance, in New Zealand and Australia with the Maori people co-creating memorial spaces and helping us question statist versions of history. The Memorial for Peace and Justice in Alabama, US, is another such citizens’ initiative that makes us aware of centuries of sanctioned violence and unrecorded crimes against enslaved Black people. The museum has partnered with sculptors, painters, singers, and writers to innovatively conceive a site where people can gather and reflect on America’s history of racial inequality and terror. It documents thousands of racial lynchings in 12 states of the US and has memorialised this history by visiting hundreds of lynching sites, collecting soil, and erecting public signposts, in an effort to reshape the predominantly White cultural landscape. The civil rights movements and contemporary issues of police violence and racially biased criminal justice system are woven in through artistic interventions in the memorial. Thus, it ceases to be a static monument, encourages us to question statist representations of histories, and talk about oppression and injustice both then and now.

Excerpted with permission from The Jallianwala Bagh Journals, Sarmistha Dutta Gupta, Jadavpur University Press.