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Wednesday, Sep 18, 2019

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

punjab Updated: Apr 11, 2018 10:44 IST
Manraj Grewal Sharma
Manraj Grewal Sharma
Hindustan Times, Amritsar
Sukumar Mukherjee, secretary of the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial Trust. His grandfather Sashti Charan, who was present at the bagh on the day of the 1919 massacre, later moved a resolution for acquiring the bagh.
Sukumar Mukherjee, secretary of the Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial Trust. His grandfather Sashti Charan, who was present at the bagh on the day of the 1919 massacre, later moved a resolution for acquiring the bagh. (Sameer Sehgal/HT)

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 Jallianwala Bagh was owned by Himmat Singh, a noble in the court of Maharaja Ranjit Singh, who hailed from Jalla village near Fatehgarh Sahib.
  • Area: 6.5 acre (26,000 m2)
  • Resolution for buying the Jallianwala Bagh: 1919
  • Funds collected: Rs 5,60,472
  • Bagh acquired on: 1 August 1920
  • Jallianwala Bagh National Memorial Trust set up: 1 May 1951
  • Flame of liberty cost: Rs 9.25 lakh
  • Designed by: American Benjamin Polk
  • Memorial inaugurated on: 13 April 1961, by President Dr Rajendra Prasad in the presence of PM Jawaharlal Nehru.
  • Members of the memorial trust: PM is the chairman, and permanent members include the Congress president, Punjab CM, governor, Union culture minister and leader of opposition in the Lok Sabha.

Also Read | Part 2: Revisiting Jallianwala 100 years on: The ‘horrible’ General Dyer

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.

  • The concrete staircase is slowly cracking open. Even the adjacent building, acquired in 2011 as it carried the bullet marks, is beginning to crumble. “God forbid there is even minor quake, the entire structure will come crashing down,” says a local.
  • A few years ago, an expert committee estimated that the repairs will take around Rs 22 lakh. The sum was sanctioned by former PM Manmohan Singh, but it is yet to reach the trust. Namita Jaspal, a heritage conservator, who has been visiting the bagh frequently, says it needs a lot of work. “The buildings are made of Nankshahi bricks, they must be strengthened without disturbing their original character. The gallery too needs an upgrade, it’s important to showcase original documents and photos in a way that they don’t disintegrate.”
  • In the past, the trust enjoyed direct access to the Prime Minister, but now all requests are routed through the ministry of culture.
  • The trust is running its salary account on the rent from a Punjab National Bank office, a part of the property, but there are little funds for maintenance, leave alone conservation. The light-and-sound show, for instance, is lying unused for want of repair. Outside the bagh, former Hall Bazaar councillor Sunil Sharma Konti, claims the memorial is facing neglect because of the perception that it is associated with the Congress.
  • Well wishers feel a nominal entry fees of even Rs 1 can make the bagh self-sustainable as it receives around 50,000 visitors a day. This proposal was strongly supported by BJP doyen LK Advani, but nothing came out of it.

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.

Also Read | Part 1: Bloodbath on Baisakhi, the massacre that shook the British Raj

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.”

Former President Dr Rajendra Prasad, ex-PM Jawaharlal Nehru, then CM of Punjab Partap Singh Kairon at the inauguration of the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial Trust on April 13, 1961.
Former President Dr Rajendra Prasad, ex-PM Jawaharlal Nehru, then CM of Punjab Partap Singh Kairon at the inauguration of the Jallianwala Bagh Memorial Trust on April 13, 1961. ( HT photo )

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 Rs 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

First Published: Apr 10, 2018 09:34 IST