Part 3 | Revisiting Jallianwala 100 years on: Meet the keeper of memories
Sukumar Mukherjee, the third generation caretaker of the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial set up after an unprecedented fund raising drive in pre-independent India, says it deserves much more respect that it gets from the present-day visitors
The sun is raining fire, but the crowd at the Jallianwala Bagh is unrelenting. At the entrance, the modest gallery is filled with hushed gasps. It’s a sombre room full of words and photos on the massacre. The lines “It’s a tragedy of national importance that cannot be allowed to be forgotten” jump at you from one wall as a girl asks her mother, “How could they shoot without warning?”
Next-door, Sukumar Mukherjee, bright in a yellow T-shirt, sits under the impassive gaze of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose. A neat row of photos, mostly black and white, line the four walls. For Mukherjee, secretary of the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial Trust, this is both home and office – his residence is a short flight upstairs.
The Bangla connection
The 64-year-old with green eyes was born here, like his father Uttam Charan. The Mukherjees from the Hooghly district of West Bengal have been the caretakers of the Jallianwala memorial from its birth. Sukumar’s grandfather Sashti Charan Mukherjee, a homeopath practising in Allahabad, was deputed by Congress leader Madan Mohan Malviya to arrange a session in Amritsar in 1910. He never went back. Present at the bagh on the day of the 1919 massacre, Sashti Charan escaped death by hiding under the dais, and later moved a resolution for acquiring the bagh at the Congress session in Amritsar. This was followed by a nationwide appeal for fundraising by Mahatma Gandhi and a trust was set up with Malviya as president and Sashti Charan as secretary. The British, it is said, wanted to obliterate the signs of the massacre by setting up a cloth market here but the Indians managed to acquire the land in 1920. Miffed, the authorities arrested Sashti Charan, who had the land deed, but he remained resolute.
Ever since, the Mukherjees have been the caretakers of the memorial. Sukumar, the youngest of three brothers, quit his bank job to take up the mantle from his father Upendra Narayan when he died in 1988. “I was appointed by then PM Rajiv Gandhi,” says Sukumar. The bagh has seen a lot of development, he says, but people no longer accord it the respect it deserves. “Most visitors treat it as a picnic spot, sometimes they don’t even care to read its history,” sighs Sukumar, who has seen a long march of VVIPs at the tall pink obelisk, called the flame of liberty.
A memorable journey
Though the trust is headed by the prime minister himself, managing the memorial is no cakewalk. In 2011, Sukumar had goons following him when the Punjab and Haryana high court ordered an illegal occupant of a neighbouring building acquired by the trust to vacate it. Sukumar laughs as he recounts how the cops ran away and left him to fend for himself in the middle of the eviction process.
A few years ago, when the Indian Tourism Development Corporation (ITDC) decided to set up a control room for a light-and-sound show on the massacre, someone spread a rumour that they were planning a ‘mujra’. “Members of the Bhagat Singh Naujawan Sabha got together and damaged the stage and speakers. It took us one year to get the project back on track.” During militancy, a group of youngsters with swords threatened to kill his father, saying they had seen people smoking in the bagh. “Papaji was very gutsy, he said, ‘kill me’ and they left.”
Complaints, howsoever frivolous, are commonplace. Last fortnight, the Punjab State Human Rights Commission shot off a notice to the trust, asking it to explain why the Sulabh Shauchalya on the premises was charging ₹2 from women. “Someone must have complained to them; but this is a charge imposed by the company, how do I explain it,” Mukherjee wonders.
A life less ordinary
Living with a piece of history has its challenges. Kakali, Sukumar’s bubbly wife who came here as a young bride in the 1980s when militancy had gripped the state, remembers the siege during Op Bluestar. “We couldn’t step out for over a week, thankfully papaji (Upendra Narayan) had a habit of storing ration.” It was due to the barter of onions and tomatoes that she came close to her neighbours during that period.
The galiara project for the beautification of the space around the Golden Temple has compounded the number of visitors to the bagh. “We have a free 24-hour light and sound show,” says Kakali. With the Golden Temple on one side and a small mosque on the other, they are treated to both gurbani and the call of the muezzin. “I enjoy the kirtan, it’ very soothing,” says Kakoli, who has learnt to speak and read Punjabi.
Lack of privacy is the first casualty of living here but the couple don’t mention it. What Kakali does broach is lack of normal domestic life. “We’ve never had a weekend, those are reserved for VIP visits,” she laughs as Sukumar tells you how he’s never celebrated the birthday of his elder daughter Proshita as it coincides with the hanging of Bhagat Singh, Sukhdev and Rajguru.
Sukumar’s two brothers have moved back to Kolkata, his three sisters too have married and left. After the couple’s two daughters Proshita, a banker, and Shreya, a designer, moved out due to jobs, Kakali has been dividing her time between Kolkota and Amritsar. Often, Sukumar is left alone with his 90-year-old ailing mother, who introduced Durga Puja to the holy city.
“My daughters worry about my health and tell me ‘Papa, you’ve done enough sewa, come stay with us’, but I want to see the memorial through its 100th anniversary. Then, I will see,” sighs Sukumar.
His eyes liquid, Sukumar is clear: “I can’t turn my back on this place. It’s seeped by the blood of so many. I can’t let them down.”
Read Part 4 here
Unidentified persons thrashed a shoe trader's employee and robbed him of his scooter carrying ₹12.50 lakh near Karabara on Thursday late. The man was returning home after dropping his employer at his house in Kitchlu Nagar. However, expressing apprehensions regarding the story, police said the victim had changed his statement a few times. He asked to record his statement, but did not reach the police station until Friday evening.
A newly married couple was allegedly attacked with sharp-edged weapons by six persons at Fatehabad's Bhuna on Friday, said the police. “Around 1 pm, we both were going to Bhuna from my native village. Six persons on two motorcycles led by my wife's cousins Ravi and Bajrang intercepted us on the way. They attacked us with sharp-edged weapons,” 24-year-old Mahender Singh, a resident of Sinthala village in the district added.
Working towards the goal of starting over 400 Vande Bharat trains across the country by 2025, the Northern Railways on Friday conducted a trial run of an advanced model of the aforesaid elite train between Sahnewal and New Morinda Junction railway station. Notably, union finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman, in her budget speech in February this year, had announced plans to start 400 Vande Bharat trains across the country in the next three years.
The Special Task Force of the Haryana Police has arrested a convict in the murder case of Sheespal's wife in Karnal's Indri in 2002, who was absconding for the last 10 years and had changed his identity impersonating an ayurvedic practitioner in Uttar Pradesh's Bareilly district. He was arrested by a team led by sub-inspector Ram Kumar of the STF's Ambala unit on Thursday from Uttar Pradesh's Bareilly district.
Police uncovered the involvement of a city resident in planting a bomb under the vehicle of Amritsar sub-inspector Dilbagh Singh. Ludhiana police, in a joint operation with counter-intelligence, rounded up the suspect and informed the Amritsar police. Police also found out that one of the main accused in planting the explosives, Fatehvir Singh, had stayed in a luxury hotel at Ludhiana-Ferozepur road in Ludhiana on August 15.