For those who gave their today

India needs a national war memorial to honour those killed in combat

Written by J.F.R. Jacob | Published:September 14, 2012 3:38 am

Nations across the world honour those who sacrificed their lives in the defence of their country with national war memorials and museums. Sadly,in India,we still do not have either. After many years of consideration,the Indian government has agreed to set up a national war memorial near India Gate. It will have a long tradition to follow.

One of the oldest battles to have a monument devoted to it is the Battle of Thermopylae,where Leonidas and his 300 Spartans died trying to fight the Persian hordes of Xerxes in 480 BCE. There is a bronze plaque inscribed with the following lines: “Tell the Spartans,stranger passing by/ That here,obedient to their laws,we lie”.

More recent wars have also been commemorated. The national war memorial in Washington DC has 56 pillars and two triumphal arches. It receives well over four million visitors every year. Then there is the Vietnam war memorial,which has two black,triangular granite slabs engraved with the names of all those who died in that war.

In Soviet Russia,they knew how to honour those who died fighting in the “Great Patriotic War”. Memorials were built in places like Moscow,Kiev and the former Leningrad. The magnificent structures are well maintained,guards at the monument march in superbly coordinated goose steps,the adjacent museums display thousands of weapons,medals and other memorabilia. The Manila American Cemetery and Memorial has some 17,000 graves,including those of people who perished in the Bataan death march. The war museum in Latrun,Israel,is hi-tech. At the touch of a button,a photograph of the fallen soldier appears,along with other details about him. There is a film that shows footage of combat operations. Generations of tanks are parked nearby. Not far away is the Museum of the Jewish Soldier in World War II,in memory of the Jews who fought against Nazi Germany and fascist Italy.

In India,the British built several war memorials. The most impressive of these — India Gate — was designed by Edwin Lutyens. It is engraved with the names of all the Indian soldiers who died in World War I. Lutyens also designed the cenotaph in the Maidan in Kolkata — it was a copy of the one he designed in Whitehall,London. Delhi is dotted with other war memorials,too. At Teen Murti,a monument commemorates cavalry regiments from three Indian princely states. They had been part of General Allenby’s offensive in Palestine. In Haifa,there are graves of Indian soldiers who died during Allenby’s thrust towards Damascus. These graves are looked after by the government of Israel till this day.

The British also built a memorial for those who died in a battle at Kohima,which also has graves of Indian soldiers. The scene of the battle had once been the deputy commissioner’s tennis court. An inscription at Kohima takes its inspiration from the monument at Thermopylae: “When you go home,tell them of us and say/ For your tomorrow,we gave up our today.”

When I was governor of Punjab,I decided to build a memorial for those Indian soldiers who have died in combat after August 15,1947. I did not want to use taxpayers’ money for the construction of the monument but hoped the public would contribute. The Indian Express volunteered to raise the money and be involved in this project. The architecture college at Chandigarh was asked to provide designs and a competition was held. Eight teams participated. A team of girls won; they offered a unique and imaginative design. The memorial was completed and inaugurated by former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam on August 17,2006. It has some 10,300 names on it and there is space for more. The motto for the memorial is “shandar yadgar” (glorious memory),taking a cue from the war memorial for the 26th Indian Division,which fought in 1945 in the Mayu Range of the Arakan Yomas. I remember this from my years of long service with this fine division.

I hope the government will find more ways to preserve the memory of those who gave their lives for the country. Long after they are gone,we must honour them with remembrance. As the war poet Julian Grenfell wrote: ‘’The thundering line of battle stands/ And in the air death moans and sings/ But day shall clasp him with strong hands/ And night shall fold him in soft wings”. Night has folded our fallen soldiers in soft wings.

The writer is a retired lieutenant general and former governor of Goa and Punjab

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