On July 28, 1914, a month after Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife were shot, the Austro-Hungarian foreign minister sent a telegram to his Serbian counterpart. Its subject — war. It would eventually become World War I, a cataclysmic conflict that would wipe out the past and redraw the map of Europe. A hundred years later, it is remembered in the new WWI gallery at the Imperial War Museum in London, in the poppy fields of Flanders, in the bugles still sounded every evening at Ypres and in crowdsourced beer to mark the centenary of the war’s beginning. Europe has learned to heal through remembrance.
In contrast, the wars of independent India seem to be wrapped in silence. Chandigarh and Bangalore do have national war memorials and there are commemorative spots such as Kargil Chowk in Patna and the Tawang War Memorial in Arunachal Pradesh. But these are inscrutable monuments rather than a vibrant record of the past. Those who fell in the wars of 1948, 1962, 1965, 1971, 1999 may be part of family histories and private memory, but the current of public memory has passed them by. So the project of a war memorial in Delhi is a great opportunity to retrieve lost histories and compile individual stories, to fill the gaps in collective memory and complete the story of ourselves as a nation.
Yet it is a project that must be handled sensitively, without shading into jingoism or romanticising war. The dead must be remembered with sorrow and sobriety, the past must stand as a warning to the future — as if to say, never again. The subject should be “the pity of war”, as Wilfred Owen said, “the poetry is in the pity”.