On the fateful day of 13 April 1919, thousands of Indians had assembled at a low-lying dumping ground in Amritsar. It was surrounded by small houses and narrow lanes.
It was the day of Baisakhi and India, at the crux of the independence struggle, was following the voice of Mahatma Gandhi, who was calling for peaceful protests.
5,000 people had assembled in Jallianwala Bagh as a part of the protests against the tyrannical Rowlatt Act that allowed the British to imprison any Indian without so much as a fair trial.
Through one of the narrow lanes that surrounded the Bagh, unsuspected by the protesters inside, entered Brigadier General REH Dyer with his troops.
He blocked the only exit and ordered his men to shoot indiscriminately.
1,650 rounds of bullets were fired, killing 1,500 innocent victims within 10 minutes.
Today, we mark the 100th anniversary of the gory episode and even a century later, Indians cannot forget the horror.
Among the 5,000 people at the Bagh on that day was Dr Sashti Charan Mukherji. A doctor originally from Hooghly in West Bengal, he had moved to practice in Allahabad to become an associate of Madan Mohan Malviya, an educationist and then President of the Indian National Congress.
In 1919, Malviya had asked the doctor to look for a suitable location for a session of the party in Amritsar.
This assignment of Sashti Charan would make him a part of the gory massacre and move him to dedicate his life to look after the place where 1,500 innocent lives were lost. It even changed the course of the Indian struggle for independence.
When Dyer’s bullets started firing at the scene, Dr Sashti Charan dived under the dais at the Bagh, managing to save himself.
“When the massacre took place, he was pained and agonised and approached the Indian National Congress to pass a resolution to acquire the land,” Sukumar Mukherji tells The Times of India. He is Sashti Charan’s grandson.
The Bagh would remain one of the most painful memories of the British Raj but it was important to maintain the ground where the massacre was carried out.
It has been reported that the British wanted to open a cloth market at the site, burying the evidence but Sashti Charan made a counter-proposal to Mahatma Gandhi.
So, he approached the Indian National Congress with a petition to acquire the land to build a memorial for the martyrs.
The petition was passed in 1920 and the land was priced at Rs 5.65 lakh. Now, it was only a matter of collecting money before Sashti Charan could take over the charge of the memorial.
While Gandhi appealed to the masses to donate money, Mukherji went door to door collecting it. Together, they collected over Rs 9 lakh and Mukherji bought the land in an open auction.
For a brief time, the British also put the doctor behind bars for the acquisition of the land. But it wasn’t long before he was released and made the first secretary of the memorial.
The doctor passed away in 1962 and the reigns of the memorial were handed over to his eldest son, Uttam Charan.
Today, 65-year-old Sukumar Mukherji, the grandson of Sashti Charan, is in charge of the memorial and looks after the visitors–common public as well as VIPs.
“I started working here with my father from 1978 and took over when he passed away in 1988. The government and the Jallianwala Bagh Trust are trying their best to develop the memorial, but we still have a long way to go,” Mukherji tells The Better India.
For a week before the centenary anniversary of the massacre, Mukherji was occupied with the preparations for the politicians and other visitors who would pay their respects to the martyrs. In a very quick phone call, he tells us that he must arrange for the candles and make other arrangements before the VIPs arrive.
As we catch him between his many interviews and appointments, the former bank employee shares that he finds it very unfortunate when visitors and locals treat the monument as anything less than a national monument.
“Visitors coming here must maintain the sanctity of the memorial. They can do so by simply helping us keep the premises clean and not leave any garbage around. People living here should also know what it stands for,” he says.
Mukherji lives with his family in the single-room quarters near the memorial. For several years, they have been paying high rent for that single room but the family does not mind.
Speaking to TOI, Mukherji mentions that he had originally pitched for an entrance fee (Rs 2) to help pay his living expenses. However, the idea was rejected by the Punjab government.
Mukherji has his own personal struggles but he doesn’t let them come in the way of the endeavour that his grandfather set the family on. It is a legacy that Mukherji is proud to take forward.
On this day, as we remember those who were killed at the Jallianwala Bagh, the Mukherji family too deserves a special mention, for dedicating their lives to live in a humble quarter and serve the memory of the martyrs.
(Edited by Shruti Singhal)