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Written By:
Athulya Aby

Commemorating Sites of Conflict in Amritsar

Published on
June 9, 2022

When Lahore, the major city of trade in north-west India pre-partition, was cut off, it changed the fate of Amritsar for ever. Being one of the biggest border cities, Amritsar still carries the trauma of the bloody events of Jallianwala Bagh massacre and the Partition itself. There is no doubt that these sites and stories are of utmost importance and should be commemorated. But the question is, how?

The guide, Gurvinder Kaur who took us for the Heritage Walk around the old city, remarked that she is 'embarrassed' to take visitors to the Jallianwala Bagh memorial after the recent renovation in 2021. When the Tribers visited it as part of their Odyssey2022, we could see why. Smiling (!), large-than-life reliefs of villagers flanked the narrow entry through which these people had walked into their deaths. The crowd carries itself through the 5 over-flowing galleries showcasing the events, partially or completely ignorant about what is being displayed. Then we were pushed out into mounts of well-kept, barricaded lawns and red sandstone pathways. Nothing about the place reminded people about the atrocity that happened there, except some framed bullet holes. The conservation architect Gurmeet Rai mentions how the original low lying site of unkept gardens were largely altered as well. Isn't the site as important as the story itself?

The lowering of the flags at Wagah border is a fascinating practice that has been happening since 1959, to display the brotherhood, cooperation and a little bit of harmless rivalry between the two nations. We went there, full of pride for our country, but we were welcomed by hundreds of 'Indians' running, screaming, pushing and pulling to grab a seat. I was surprised to see people leave even before the flags were lowered! It seemed like they came only to dance along with the 'patriotic' bollywood songs and take 'Instagramable' photos at the border. I wonder if anyone even knows the importance of the ceremony. But then, are people given the chance to understand? The BSF Officer anchoring the ceremony has the power to direct the thousands of people gathered at the stands to shout or stay silent with just a wave of his hand. Maybe this power can be used to make people more aware of the importance of the practice as well.

Visitors dancing to 'patriotic' Bollywood songs at Wagah border, Amritsar

The Partition Museum is one of the most recent addition to the sites of commemoration in Amritsar. It is interesting that they chose the Town Hall, which housed the Police station at the time of the British rule. Just like most other museums, the history and artefacts of events leading to and after the Partition have been displayed here. Yet, what struck me the most the the audio-visual displays of the personal narrations of refugees about their journey, suffering and resilience. We have all heard of how thousands were effected by the mass migration that followed, but what hit me hard was the pain of loss in their voices even more than 70 years after the incidents. Even though the Partition did not physically happen at the site of the museum, an indulgent visitor could surely feel the pain of it by the time they exited it.

Town Hall renovated as the Partition Museum, Amritsar

Such sites of memory, when maintained well, can become a place of collective shared knowledge, helpful in uniting the community and individuals. In Amritsar, where there is a constant tussle between peace and conflict, these sites can be a reminder of the fights, struggles and the blood shed for the freedom which we often take for granted. In the race to popularise and commodify these sites as tourist attractions, are these places and their stories losing their significance too?

Odyssey 2022, India's first travel scholarship initiative by Shoshin Tribe, powered by goStops.

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