On Saturday, Prime Minister Narendra Modi renovated the site of one of the bloodiest massacres in the subcontinent’s history: Jallianwala Bagh. Almost 1,000 Indians were brutally murdered by colonial overlords now has a light and sound show to commemorate the incident. Ever since the project has been revealed, outrage has poured, with many calling it insensitive and an attempt at commercialising a sombre, historical site.
Historian Kim Wagner took to Twitter to call the renovation a “Disneyfication” of history. Many have called it a “corporatisation of monuments”. The outrage rightly comes from the fact that the nationalist BJP government has taken away the site’s essence, which was to remember a tragic event, and has replaced it with a modern tourist attraction. Jawaharlal Nehru University’s Professor Chaman Lal said, “People visiting Jallianwala Bagh should go with a sense of pain and anguish. They have now tried to make it a space for enjoying, with a beautiful garden. It was not a beautiful garden.”
While the commercialisation of such a historic site is truly disrespectful and erasure of history, there is more at play here.
Wagner writes in his book that the memorial hardly celebrates anyone who actually died in the massacre and instead immortalized nationalist heroes who were not even present at Jallianwala. The original passageway where General Dyer led the Indians to their death is now freshly painted and covered with murals that have erased the rich history. The names of those killed are nowhere to be found. The Bagh is no longer a place for mourning the dead but only a celebration of a nationalist myth commemorating those who had no association with the incident but fit the BJP’s government nationalist narrative.
And this is not something new. The Modi government has been pushing this narrative for a while, primarily to pacify the Indian population and distract them from the real issues at hand.
A prime example of this is the 2018 Statue of Unity celebrating India’s first Deputy Prime Minister, Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel. While it is acceptable to commemorate national heroes, what is surprising is that the statue cost INR 27 billion ($422 million). Thousands of farmers protested at the unveiling, all with one question: why spend so much on a statue when the country is in turmoil?
It was estimated that in the statue’s cost, the Modi government could have made seven university campuses, six space missions, and a plethora of water pipelines for farmers who are facing shortages due to inadequate irrigation methods. Around 72 villages were affected by the statute, and 19 claims that no compensation has been provided to them and rehabilitation projects there have been abandoned.
But even if the government wishes to ignore that, it cannot justify spending so much on a statue while there are numerous conflicts that it faces. Violence is erupting due to the Assam-Mizoram border dispute killing 157 people, and communal clashes between Hindus and Muslims have taken almost 2,000 lives.
All this puts the outrage over the Jallianwala Bagh memorial into perspective. While the nation is suffering, the BJP government pushes its nationalist agenda to pacify the people and divert their attention from its inadequacies in dealing with the real issues. They have turned a blind eye towards all of this and focused on instilling the Hindutva narrative with flamboyant and useless symbols, such as large statues and made-up murals.
The erasure of history and the perpetuation of this nationalist agenda seem to be the Modi government’s primary interest. And while India burns, there is no one to help her.