The plants and flowers are all scorched or withered— Subhadra Kumari Chauhan, ‘Jallianwala Bagh Mein Basant’ [Spring in Jallianwala Bagh] (1929)
Deprived of its scent, the pollen is scattered like a stain on the ground
Alas! This lovely garden is drenched in blood
Come spring, dear king of seasons, but come quietly
This is a mourning-place, so make no noise
Within a year of the massacre, and long before its real consequences were known, Jallianwala Bagh was purchased after a public subscription and turned into a memorial park. There was originally some opposition to the idea, and it was suggested that a memorial at Amritsar would – like the British “Mutiny” memorial at Cawnpore – simply”perpetuate bitterness and ill will’. Gandhi, who was one of organisers behind the subscription, responded with great poignancy:
“Can we afford to forget those five hundred or more men who were killed although they had done nothing wrong either morally or legally? If they had died knowingly and willingly, if realising their innocence they had stood their ground and faced the shots from the fifty rifles, they would have gone down to history as saints, heroes and patriots. But even as it was, the tragedy became one of first class national importance. [...] We were unable to protect our helpless countrymen when they were ruthlessly massacred. We may decline, if we will, to avenge the wrong. The nation will not lose if we did. But shall we – can we afford to – decline to perpetuate the memory and to show to the surviving members of the families of the dead that we are sharers in their sufferings, by erecting a national tombstone and by telling the world thereby that in the death of these men each one of us has lost dear relations?”
For the poet Hasan Manto, who grew up in Amritsar, the Bagh retained much of its symbolic significance as a gathering place for anti-colonial protests, where the myths and the memories of 13 April 1919 soon became indistinguishable. In the short story “For Freedom’s Sake”, Manto described how he and his friend Ghulam Ali would spend hours in Jallianwala Bagh:
“You know, Ghulam Ali, don’t you, how this well was once filled to its mouth with the bodies of people slain in the firing? Today everybody drinks from it. It has watered every flower in this park. People come and pluck those flowers. But strangely, not even a drop carries the salty taste of blood. Not a single petal of a single flower has the redness of blood in it. Why is that?
I vividly remember that as I spoke I had looked at the window of a neighbouring house where, it is said, a young girl had been shot dead by General Dyer as she stood watching the massacre. The streak of blood had begun to fade on the old lime wall behind the window. Blood had become so cheap that spilling it no longer affected people as it once had. I remember I was in the third or fourth standard at school, and six or seven months after the bloody massacre our teacher had taken us to see Jallianwala Bagh. It hardly looked like a park then, just a dreary and desolate stretch of uneven earth, strewn all over with clods of dried dirt. I remember how the teacher had picked up a small clod, reddened I believe from paan spittle, and showed it to us, saying, ‘Look, it’s still red from the blood of our martyrs!’”
The barren ground of Jallianwala Bagh soon became an item on the tourist itinerary, providing a stark contrast to the splendour of the Golden Temple nearby.
Showing an American visitor around in 1921, a local resident explained what the Bagh meant to Indians: “The only amends that the British bureaucracy here or the British people in England have made for these acts is to ask us ‘to forgive and forget’ the past, and sometime, when we feel inclined to close up this chapter of shame of our history, the cry that comes out of this blood-stained wall rings louder and clearer in our ears.”
As part of the conciliatory policy assumed by the British towards the end of 1919, O’Dwyer’s successor as Lieutenant-Governor of Punjab, ED Maclagan, had made the suggestion that the “Government should give pensions to members of families who lost their bread-winners in the firing at Jallianwala Bagh”. The Indian charitable organisation, the Sewa Samiti, which had so far been distributing aid in Amritsar, would soon be running out of resources and Maclagan argued that it would have good effect politically if the British Government provided relief. The Government of India, however, was initially not very supportive of the idea of compensation and CW Gwynne of the Viceroy’s Executive Council warned that it would be a futile exercise:
“The proposal is made on grounds of political expediency rather than of humanity. Purely from that point of view (political expediency) it may well be doubted whether anything that Government can do in this matter will be regarded with any feeling but disfavour. It is almost certain in some tortuous way to be turned against Government. The pensions will be called hush money and blood money, and the recipients will be boycotted, and encouraged to surrender them. For Government to give pensions might be construed into an admission of error. It is hardly worth spending money to secure an effect of this kind.”
William Marris, Joint Secretary to Government of India, was more amenable to the idea of compensation but, like Gwynne, wary that it might backfire: “We do not want to be accused of buying silence with blood money.” The payment of compensation was nevertheless approved and a committee established under A Langley of the Indian Civil Service to evaluate claims and distribute the funds during the course of 1921 and 1922.
Following much wrangling between the Punjab Government and Government of India over who was going to foot the bill, more than 2 million rupees were paid in compensation to those who were wounded or the relatives of those who were killed during the unrest in Punjab. The relatives of those killed at Jallianwala Bagh received, on average, Rs 8,700, which may be compared to the Rs 135,000 awarded to the widow of GM Thomson of the Alliance Bank.
None of these sums, however, compared to the money received by Dyer from the Morning Post collection.
When the new Viceroy, Lord Reading, took the remarkable step of visiting Jallianwala Bagh on the anniversary of the massacre in 1921, the first British official to do so, he was met with complaints about the disparity of compensation awarded to Indians and Europeans. Reading promised to look into the matter, but nothing ever came of this.
When the authorities originally called for the residents of Amritsar to submit the names of relatives killed at Jallianwala Bagh, 38-year-old Dr Mani Ram, a dental surgeon, had been among those who responded:
As desired in the official notification, I give below a brief account of the tragic death of my son, Madan Mohan, which occurred in the Jallianwala Bagh on the 13th April last. The delay in submitting this information is due to my absence from Amritsar to Mussoorie hills. Jallianwala Bagh is at a distance of about three minutes’ walk and is the only open place near my house which is opposite the Clock Tower. My son, Madan Mohan, aged about 13 years [...] along with his playmates used to visit this open square for play almost daily. On the 13th April last he went there as usual and met his tragic end, having been shot in the head which fractured his skull, he bled and died instantaneously. I with eight or nine others had to search for about half an hour till I could pick up his corpse as it was mixed up with hundreds of dead bodies lying in heaps there, who met their respective ends under circumstances well known. This is how my innocent child of innocent age was murdered by those who allege they acted in the name of justice, law and order...”
Mani Ram was eventually awarded Rs 8,362 in compensation for the loss of his son. Ultimately, not everyone who was eligible for compensation could bring themselves to apply. The 46-year-old merchant Lala Rup Lal Puri, who was a member of the Amritsar District Congress Committee, had been one of the speakers who addressed the crowd at Jallianwala Bagh. He was shot in the back as he tried to escape but survived. His explanation was simple: “I was not prepared to accept any compensation and therefore did not apply for it, though I was asked to do so. I still bear the bullet mark.”
Today, at the Jallianwala Bagh memorial, the traces of the original event have all but vanished. What remains is heavily circumscribed by a post-Independence narrative, which celebrates the sacrifice and contribution of nationalist leaders and revolutionaries.
Visitors enter through the same narrow passage as Dyer did, but beyond that it is difficult to reconcile the green garden – with its prominent red-stone monument, porticos and pathways, topiary soldiers and crowds of tourists – with the barren killing field of a century ago. A plaque just inside the garden proclaims the significance of the site as a shrine for Indian nationalism:
“This place is saturated with the blood of thousands of Indian patriots who were martyred in a non-violent struggle to free India from British domination. General Dyer of the British army opened fire here on unarmed people. Jallianwala Bagh is thus an everlasting symbol of non-violent & peaceful struggle for freedom of India.”
The pillars of the portico at the entrance supposedly symbolise Dyer’s soldiers while the small fountain in the middle represents the historically non-existent machine gun. Apart from the central pylon, representing the “Flame of Liberty”, a large structure has been built around the so-called “Martyrs’ Well”, from which a sign now claims 120 bodies were recovered following the massacre.
This story, which is not corroborated by the accounts of either Motilal or Jawaharlal Nehru, would seem to be a conflation with the infamous well at Cawnpore, where the bodies of European women and children had been left after the Bibighar massacre in 1857.
In the nearby “Martyr’s Gallery”, the visitor’s gaze is focused on a large painting of the massacre, prominently displayed on the end-wall. The painting shows the interior of Jallianwala Bagh covered in dead bodies and the figures of fleeing people clinging to the surrounding walls. The painting originally depicted only a landscape of death and despair, though a row of amateurishly drawn Gurkhas troops has at some later point been added to the lower left corner.
The depiction of the massacre is framed on both sides by a pantheon of nationalist heroes, some of whom were associated with the events at Amritsar, including Kitchlew and Satyapal, as well as Ratto and Bugga, but also the widow Ratan Devi, who remained by her husband’s body after the massacre. Others, like Madan Lal Dhingra, who assassinated a British official in London in 1909, appear to be included merely by virtue of hailing from Punjab.
The real hero of the Jallianwala Bagh memorial, however, is the figure of Udham Singh, who, along with Bhagat Singh, is Punjab’s most celebrated freedom fighter. Following the assassination of O’Dwyer, Udham Singh was executed by the British, and was instantaneously accorded the status of a true patriotic martyr.
It is said that Udham Singh had himself been present at Jallianwala Bagh and was wounded in the arm, although there is little evidence for this. In the popular imagination, however, there is no question about his connection to the massacre, and some of Udham Singh’s ashes are even kept at the Jallianwala Bagh memorial. While none of the people who were actually killed on 13 April 1919 are commemorated in the “Martyr’s Gallery”, Udham Singh is represented by no less than two paintings.
It is also his likeness, along with that of Bhagat Singh, that the hundreds of schoolchildren daily visiting the Bagh invariably make colourful drawings of, and, as if to banish any lingering doubts, a statue of Udham Singh was erected at the very entrance to Jallianwala Bagh in 2018.
At the Jallianwala Bagh memorial, it is thus an entirely teleological narrative that has come to dominate – one in which the significance of the massacre is recognised only insofar as it served as inspiration for others. It is as the catalyst of the freedom struggle, which came to its fruition with Indian independence in 1947, that the Amritsar Massacre is commemorated and not as a historically meaningful event in its own right.
The names of the 379 people known to have been killed are nowhere to be found and, a hundred years after Dyer walked down the narrow passage with his fifty troops, Jallianwala Bagh is no longer a place for mourning the dead, as Gandhi originally envisaged, but a celebration of a nationalist myth.
The only original building within the Bagh, namely the small samadhi, or temple, with its bulbous dome and surrounding wall with archways, stands forlorn and out of place among the twentieth-century structures of the memorial. On the north-facing side of the samadhi, and in two other parts of the walls of the Bagh, there are still marks from the bullets fired by Dyer’s troops, some ninety-two in total.
Were it not for the painted white squares framing the bullet-holes, however, they would be largely indistinguishable from the wear and tear of the brick-work itself. Prodded and probed by thousands of visitors over a hundred-year period, these historical scars have slowly but surely been worn away. As the last traces of the massacre are gradually erased, and its history steadily overwritten, all that will be left is a name.
Excerpted with permission from Jallianwala Bagh: An Empire Of Fear And The Making Of The Amritsar Massacre, Kim A Wagner, Penguin Books.