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The renovated Jallianwala Bagh memorial in Amritsar is illuminated at night on August 28. Photo: AFP

‘Disney-fied’ revamp of India’s Jallianwala Bagh memorial sparks stormy debate

  • Embellishments such as disco-style strobe lights at the site of one of the bloodiest massacres in British colonial history have prompted outrage
  • But defenders of the refurbishment say there are now better views and new galleries to commemorate a turning point that led to the end of Britain’s rule
A stormy debate has broken out in India over the restoration of a memorial for one of the bloodiest massacres in British colonial history, with critics lamenting the addition of garish embellishments and historians complaining that history has been erased.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated the revamped memorial on Saturday, but the backlash began when pictures emerged on social media. Indians were outraged at what they felt was a desecration of a sombre remembrance site – the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar, in the northern Indian state of Punjab, where British soldiers fired into a crowd of unarmed protesters in April 1919.

The British government at the time put the death toll at 379, while Indian freedom fighters said nearly 1,000 people died, in what historians call a turning point that culminated in the end of British rule.

The memorial was once austere and unadorned, a stark reminder of the men, women, and children killed when Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer ordered his men to shoot. Bullet holes were left as they were, and the walls of the narrow path leading to the memorial – which was blocked by soldiers to prevent the crowd escaping – were bare.

Much of the criticism has been levelled at the refurbishment of this passage, which now has murals and smiling bronze figures along its length, while the stone path has been replaced with shiny tiles.

Author Kishwar Desai, who has published a book on the massacre, wrote in a Thursday column for The Indian Express that the refurbished memorial does not “reflect the grim reality of that day in April a century ago”.

At night, the memorial is illuminated in flashes of purple and pink, while there are even disco-style strobe lights. Visitors are treated to a sound and light show in the evenings, telling them the story of the massacre – which some critics say has been “Disney-fied”.

Modi said the 200 million rupee (US$2.7 million) revamp to commemorate the centenary of the massacre in 2019 would “remind the new generation about the history of this holy place”, but there was plenty of dismay online.
Visitors walk past sculptures at the renovated passage into the memorial. Photo: AFP

“This is like sending a marriage brass band to play at a cremation ground,” one tweeted. Others said the site had been glamorised to make it more attractive to tourists, trivialising the suffering it was meant to symbolise.

Danish-British historian Kim Wagner, meanwhile, called it a “part of the general Disneyfication of the old city of Amritsar”.

Indian historian Irfan Habib was shocked. “This is the corporatisation of monuments where they end up as modern structures, losing heritage value. Look after them without meddling with the flavours of the period these memorials represent,” he said.

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But the new look is not without its defenders. They argue that visitors will get better views, enjoy new galleries, and see a better range of artefacts that have been added to the museum dedicated to India’s movement to liberate itself from British colonial rule.

They also point out that decrepit structures with peeling walls have been cleaned up, and the gardens are better landscaped.

Shwait Malik of the Jallianwala Bagh Trust said the intention behind embossing large smiling figures on the walls of the path was to honour the dead rather than insult them, as some critics, including opposition leader Rahul Gandhi, had claimed.

“These sculptures in the lane will make visitors conscious of those who walked in on that day,” Mailj said. “Earlier, people walked this narrow lane without knowing its history, now they will walk with history.”

A general view of the renovated Jallianwala Bagh memorial. Photo: AFP

India’s attitude towards its history has always been complicated. On the one hand, there is scant regard for it; all over the country are neglected ancient monuments and tombs that anywhere else would be maintained with pride. Many are not even recorded in official documents or databases.

In New Delhi alone, tombs several centuries old can be found in residential neighbourhoods, next to homes and shops. Crumbling amid unkempt undergrowth, stray dogs and beggars use them for shelter.

Some hugely important Mughal monuments in the city were left to decline until the privately run Aga Khan Trust took up the task of restoring them.

Even the partition of the Indian subcontinent into India and Pakistan in 1947, which displaced tens of millions and caused up to 2 million deaths by some estimates, had little physical or cultural commemoration until historian Desai and others set up the first museum on the subject in 2017.

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On the other, history is very much alive. Events from centuries ago live on in public discourse, particularly among politicians from Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) who in their speeches refer to “sackings” or “lootings” by Muslim rules who preceded the British.

Even today, BJP leaders are busy changing the Muslim names of towns that go back centuries to Hindu names, showing that the past is part of the present. Uttar Pradesh chief minister Yogi Adityanath, a BJP member, has said the town of Aligarh is now to be known by the Hindu name of Harigarh. He has already changed the names of several other towns in the state and more are expected to follow.

This is why, whenever there is a restoration or a revamp of a historical site, there is inevitable controversy.

Outrage over the Jallianwala Bagh is likely to rumble on for a while. Desai, in her column on Thursday, asked Modi to remember those who died at the site in a “historically correct” manner.

“We do hope, with your intervention, those instances of renovation and restoration at the Bagh which are contrary to the facts of their memory, will be rectified,” she wrote.

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Revamp of massacre memorial criticised