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Partition Museum’s Punjab Under Siege exhibit recounts Jallianwala Bagh massacre through personal testimonies

It was nearly a 100 years ago, at the tipping point of India’s history, when thousands gathered on a fateful Baisakhi day, the harvest festival of Punjab, at the Jallianwala Bagh in Amritsar. This was a period in colonial India when Hindus and Muslims stood unitedly against oppression, even as prisoners were detained without trial and the British authorities held mighty sway over the country.

Then, the dominoes started falling.

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre of 13 April 1919, ordered by Colonel Reginald Dyer, led to a loss of faith in British governance and effectively steered the end of colonial rule in India. To mark the centenary year of this significant day in history and remember the fallen, the Partition Museum in Amritsar opened an exhibition on 11 August titled, Punjab Under Siege: A Commemorative Exhibition on the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre Centenary.

On that April day in 1919, men, women and children had assembled in defiance at the garden to protest against the arrest of two leaders fighting for Indian independence and the implementation of the Rowlatt Act passed in Februrary 1919. Jallianwala Bagh, walled on all sides, was about the size of three football fields with five entrances. On the orders of Brigadier-General Reginald Edward Harry Dyer, British troops blocked these entryways and opened fire on the thousands gathered there as they attempted to flee the scene.

Some tried to scale the walls, others rushed towards the locked exits and many jumped into the well inside Jallianwala Bagh to escape the British forces. The gunfire, which lasted ten minutes, exhausted 1,650 rounds of ammunition. According to official figures, 379 were killed and 1,200 were wounded. There has been much debate over these numbers, with the Indian National Congress reporting more than a 1,000 people dead and nearly 1,500 as injured. Many also died in the stampede that ensued as bullets flew across the length of the park, and others succumbed to their injuries.

The Jallianwala Bagh massacre led to massive outrage that fuelled the Non-Cooperation Movement of 1920. After being lauded at first by the British parliament, Dyre was subsequently forced into retirement. However, the incident remains an open would, and it sparked outrage through the country and spurred the freedom movement with new vigour.

The CEO and curator of the Partition Museum Mallika Ahluwalia talks about the exhibits on display that tell the story of this bloodshed.

How did the museum conceive of this exhibition?

The idea for this exhibition was born of the research done by the Chair of our Trust, Lady Kishwar Desai, for her new book, Jallianwala Bagh, 1919 – Before and After.

Her research uncovered so much new material, so much that we didn’t know about the events in 1919, that as we started discussing it within the museum team, we felt that we should do an exhibition; particularly because the more we learned about the events, the more we realised that it was really a story of undivided India and undivided Punjab, and that there was a natural mesh with the Partition Museum.

Newspaper clippings and articles on display in the exhibition Punjab Under Seige at the Partition Museum in Amritsar.

Newspaper clippings and articles on display in the exhibition Punjab Under Siege at the Partition Museum in Amritsar.

For example, one thing I hadn’t thought about before getting involved with this exhibition was the extent of Hindu-Muslim unity in the Satyagraha protests leading up to 13 April 1919. In Amritsar, the two main leaders were Saifuddin Kitchlew, a Muslim, and Satyapal, a Hindu. On 9 April, Ram Navami that year, there were processions through Amritsar demonstrating this unity.

What’s even more interesting are the archival government files where local British officials state they were unnerved by this unity. It undermined their divide and rule policy.

What kind of artefacts have been sourced specially for this particular exhibit? How did you go about sourcing them?

Lady Desai has been doing research in various archives for the last two years, so the exhibition includes those archival photographs, letters, official documents, and newspapers. We have managed to source original first-edition versions of the reports written at that time. For example, nearly 100-year old prints from 1920 of the Hunter Committee report, as well as the Congress report, Dyer’s testimony to the UK Parliament etc. These include rare photographs. We have found old maps. We have also used a lot of poetry, film, and oral histories.

Could you talk about some of the artefacts on display?

Most of us think of Jallianwala Bagh as an isolated incident, but it was part of a much larger violent repression.

There are many exhibits on display – I will share four. We will have on display martial law orders from 1919 that show the extent of humiliation and torture put on the people of Punjab. For instance, one order required Indians to crawl on their bellies across the length of a particular street in Amritsar. We have images from this ‘Crawling Order’.

We have obtained an original newspaper from 1920, which has rare images of the tragic, brutal flogging of Indians in the summer of 1919.

Dignitaries at the exhibits that describe the 'Crawling Order' at the Partition Museum in Amritsar. Twitter@ManjitGK

Dignitaries at the exhibits that describe the ‘Crawling Order’ at the Partition Museum in Amritsar. Twitter@ManjitGK

We also have a copy of a 1920s book written in verse, Khooni Baisakhi, which is a poignant lament to the Emperor on Jallianwala Bagh. This book was banned by the British very soon after publication, so a rare copy has been donated to us by the author’s family. We have images of the Bagh itself from 1919 – then it was a desolate piece of barren, uneven land.

Is this the only museum to have a dedicated exhibition on the incident?

Apart from the display at the Jallianwala Bagh site itself, this is the first dedicated exhibition. I am honoured to share that we have now arranged for our exhibition to travel to other cities in India and the UK to mark the centenary.

What is the nature of the narrative of this exhibition? Does it employ a certain tone, or offer a comment on the incident?

The Partition Museum is a ‘people’s museum’. It tells the history of Partition through people’s stories using personal objects, photographs, and oral histories. In keeping with the spirit of the museum, this exhibition will also tell the story of Punjab in 1919 in a new way – through its impact on people’s lives. The central galleries of this exhibition are two audio-visual installations that use victims’ testimonies to bring history alive for the visitor. So, they experience a very different narrative than the one which focuses on officials.

The exhibition also points out that the Jallianwala Bagh massacre was one part of a much larger system of colonial oppression in Punjab that lasted for months, even years. Therefore, we explore the event as part of a larger historical narrative that begins with the events leading up to the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, and ends with a look at its aftermath. As the museum’s building (the Town Hall) used to be the Kotwali (police headquarters), actual jail cells where people were incarcerated in 1919 will be thrown open to the public through special displays.

Exhibits that throw light on the peoples' movement in colonial India.

Exhibits that throw light on the peoples’ movement in colonial India.

How do museums like the Partition Museum throw light on local history, such as that of Amritsar?

It is very important that museums be rooted in the physical spaces they are in.

The very first gallery in the Partition Museum tries to fully bring the visitor, mentally and emotionally, into the museum’s space, by giving the context and history of where they find themselves – in the Town Hall building, in Katra Ahluwalia (the neighbourhood), in Amritsar. We are located less than a five-minute walk from Jallianwala Bagh and the Golden Temple, so we also give the history of these places in the museum. In fact, we know from historical research that some of the rooms in the Kotwali, the current home of the museum, were the sites of the torture and oppression of 1919. We have a photo from 1919 with a sign saying ‘City Police Headquarters’ on the facade of our building. This exhibition therefore acknowledges that colonial history of the building.

Our vision for the Partition Museum is that it will be deeply embedded in the community of Amritsar – already we are engaged with many local schools, colleges, and institutions – we hope that we can continue to do more to remember and commemorate local history.

A 100 years have passed since the Jallainwala Bagh massacre, but it still remains a fresh wound. How do the people of Amritsar perceive it?

Over the last year we have interviewed scores of Amritsari residents, in preparation for this exhibition, and it is interesting to reflect on how physical spaces retain memory. For many of the people whose family members were present in Jallianwala Bagh on 13 April 1919, there is a much deeper connect with the Bagh, and the narratives of what happened to their fathers or grandfathers have become a part of their family lore. The people who have lived in the area for decades comment on how much the Bagh has changed in the last few decades from how it originally looked.

For others, whose families moved here in more recent decades, their interaction with the space is as a site of an important moment in the freedom struggle, and one that receives hundreds of visitors every day.

Their focus was on how the government could do more to make it more accessible and equip it with better amenities. Their experience of the event is more in the form of collective public memory, which of course remains very strong.

Punjab Under Siege: A Commemorative Exhibition on the Jallianwala Bagh Massacre Centenary (1919-2019) opened at the Partition Museum, Amritsar on 11 August, 2018. To know more about the exhibition or museum, check out their website or contact them.

Updated Date: Aug 17, 2018 18:08 PM

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Updated: August 18, 2018 — 2:54 am
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