Preservation or erasure? A closer look into the Jallianwala revamping project

The Jallianwala Bagh restoration project has received widespread criticism for its inconsiderate beautification of a solemn site of tragedy. SAMRIDHI SHUKLA writes about the need to heed international guidelines on the restoration of historical sites, and to avoid politicization of the collective history of the country.


THE recently completed Jallianwala Bagh restoration project undertaken by the Government of India has been decried across social media platforms and scholarly circles.

Once emblematic of one of the most brutal State-sponsored massacres in British history, the site has now been reduced to somewhat of a picnic spot, with manicured lawns and a light and sound show to boot. Many outraged citizens have raised questions regarding the tone-deaf manner in which the restoration has been carried out.

It is thus important to delve into the potential legal ramifications of the Disneyfication of a mass murder site that invokes strong patriotic emotion and carries with it such a bloody past.

The renovation flouts several international guidelines on restoration of heritage sites

In 1964, the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS) released the Venice Charter that laid out several points to pay heed to while restoring a site or document of historical and cultural value. Article 7 of the Charter recognised a monument as “inseparable from the history to which it bears witness and from the setting in which it occurs.”

The Jallianwala Bagh restoration is blatantly incongruent to this. Instead of standing true in testimony to a brutal State-sponsored massacre of the people of Punjab, this “complete revamp” of the Bagh has virtually erased the raw emotion the pre-renovation structure invoked.

Also read: Heritage Laws: British Bulwarks Well Preserved

Preserving the sanctity and soul of a site of martyrdom means restoring its architectural composition in sync with its cultural context and historic value. This is reiterated under Article 9 of the Charter that says, “The process of restoration is a highly specialised operation. Its aim is to preserve and reveal the aesthetic and historic value of the monument and is based on respect for original material and authentic documents.” So, are there any legal protocols around restorative authenticity vis-à-vis authentic restoration?

As Bernard Fielden, world-renowned conservation architect commented- “Conservation seeks to prolong the life of cultural property and if possible to clarify the historic and artistic message without loss of authenticity.

The Nara Document of 1994 is another authoritative piece on the restoration of historical sites. Drafted in accordance with the spirit of UNESCO guidelines and the Venice Charter, it defines authenticity as “something that sustains and proves itself, as well as having credit and authority from itself. Authenticity refers to something creative, authorship, something having a deep identity in form and substance.” Authenticity, thus, becomes the essential yardstick for measuring a site’s cultural-historical value, and further chalking out its capacity and scope for undergoing renovation processes.

The Operational Guidelines adopted during the World Heritage Convention of 1972 further highlight the prime role of authenticity in understanding and preserving heritage. Conservation of cultural heritage in all its forms and historical periods is rooted in the values attributed to the heritage.

International organisations working for the conservation of heritage sites profess the holistic use of traditional knowledge systems that capture the essence of a cultural landscape. This includes recognising the socio-historical context of the site, and linking it to the people, nature and geography it is situated in.

Also read: Democracy and dissent go hand in hand, but dissent must be expressed in designated areas: SC on Shaheen Bagh

Politicisation of such heritage sites often leads to erasure of the history they are attached to. Thus, the nomination process of members of the monitoring body must be identified and questioned, if necessary.

Interestingly, in November 2019, the Rajya Sabha had passed the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial (Amendment) Bill that allowed for the central government to terminate the nominated trustee before their five-year term. It had also, in aiming to allegedly a-politicize the trust, removed the clause that mandated permanent membership for the President of the Indian National Congress.

Fast forward to August of this year, the renovation has attracted the speculation that it is a major election gimmick. With the Punjab elections around the corner, seizing regional Punjabi heritage of incomparable national importance centres the politics of nationalism and politicizes the collective past we all share as Indians.

Crossing the fine line between restoration and renovation

The new additions to the site include a lotus pond that goes along the main memorial building and the ‘Martyrs Well’ enclosed within a glass shield. An exit point has also been added to the infamous one-way passage.

While this does not seem like a major problem, a closer look into the history of the place leads one to a disturbing revelation: that there was no point of exit for the thousand men, women and children trapped in this gallery and mercilessly shot on the fateful day.

The walls of the passage have been decorated with murals of people with enthusiastic, smiling faces walking towards the ground. It is important to remember that during the time of the massacre, the British government had imposed the draconian Rowlatt Act. Hundreds had already been thrown behind bars without trial, with inhumane forms of torture such as the ‘crawling order’ and public flogging meted out to those suspected of non-compliance.

It does not take deep thought to understand that the nation was under a general atmosphere of distress and anguish, and enthusiasm and joy were probably the last emotions the peaceful protestors were feeling as they made their way into the ground. Moreover, the erstwhile solemnity of the site has now been hijacked by a 28-minute light-and-sound show.

One wonders if this wildly out-of-context celebration is the correct way to pay service to the martyrs of the bloodiest Baisakhi the country has witnessed. The current government’s disregard for the history that the site represents leads us to another important question: who gets to authenticate the “authenticity” of a historical site?

The descendants of the martyrs were not consulted before approving such substantial changes to the site, nor were historians and architects equipped with the knowledge requisite for restoring places of historical value. It is thus ironic that the ICOMOS conducted its 19th General Assembly in 2017 in which the ‘Delhi Declaration on Heritage and Democracy’ was passed.

This Declaration aimed at ushering in a ‘people-centric’ and ‘culture-specific’ approach to the preservation of heritage sites, and emphasized on the need for professional heritage expertise and multidisciplinary cooperation to be seen as indispensable factors of restoration processes.

Instead of involving non-profit heritage preservation organisations such as the Indian National Trust for Art and Cultural Heritage (INTACH), the project was entrusted to ‘Vama Communications’, a Gujarat-based firm that had earlier minted a whopping 26 crore rupees off the Gandhi Museum in Rajkot.

The gaudy, excessive additions to the massacre site may be eyesores for those deeply involved with its past, but translate to neat profits for renovators with no connection whatsoever with architectural techniques of preservation. As historian Irfan Habib remarked, “This is corporatization of monuments, where they end up as modern structures, losing the heritage value. Look after them without meddling with the flavors of the period these memorials represent.”

Authority of international and national guidelines must be reinforced

The Jallianwala Bagh is not a commercial tourist spot. Its sanctity must be respected. The overwhelming helplessness of those trapped between the narrow walls, which slowly creeped on you as you stood in silent mourning at the Bagh before, is now drowned by laser lights and music.

Also read: History comes alive: At Delhi’s Gandhi Museum, now listen to the Mahatma’s heartbeat-beat-beat

There is no denying that the state of the site called for a substantial overhaul in terms of cleanliness and that its upkeep had been neglected for quite long. However, what was needed was restoration and not renovation.

Restorations of heritage sites are not ordinary construction projects. They require specialized aesthetics, material, and technology to preserve their socio-cultural contexts without tampering with the authenticity of the structure.

This insensitive renovation of the Bagh is a collective loss of the people of this country, and the judiciary must listen to the pleas of historians and descendants of martyrs and ensure that international and national guidelines on restoration of heritage sites are adhered to. Legal frameworks around the preservation of sites of cultural importance must be strengthened to include those directly involved and/or affected by it.

(Samridhi Shukla is a second-year undergraduate law student at the Hidayatullah National Law University, Raipur. The views expressed are personal.)

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