On Wednesday, the Union Cabinet approved a proposal for the construction of a national war memorial at India Gate. If all goes according to plan, the memorial, along with a war museum, will come up at Princess Park near India Gate in the next five years.
The Cabinet clearance is the closest the country has got to getting a national war memorial for its soldiers who have, since Independence, laid their lives while defending its frontiers. It’s a long pending proposal, almost as old as Independent India, and an emotive one too. Nobody understands this better than political parties who have used the demand for a war memorial as an election-time leverage, along with the One-Rank One-Pension demand.
In January last year, minutes after felicitating Lata Mangeshkar on the 51st anniversary of her song Aye mere watan ke logon, Narendra Modi, then BJP’s prime ministerial candidate, had said, “There is no country in the world where there is no war memorial. India has fought several wars, thousands of our soldiers have been martyred but there is no memorial to honour their sacrifice.”
He may not to be entirely right. India isn’t the only country without a national war memorial — the US, for instance, doesn’t have one, though it has memorials dedicated to its soldiers such as the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. India too has its share of memorials, such as the Victory War Memorial in Chennai and the National Military Memorial in Bangalore — not to mention the roads and lanes named after soldiers — but these are mostly to honour soldiers from those regions, not a national memorial.
It’s well-known that the most famous of war memorials in India, India Gate, was built by the British to honour Indian soldiers who fought for the Raj in World War I. But since independence, the country has fought six wars/operations, including the Indo-Pakistan wars of 1947-48, 1965, 1971, the 1962 war against China, the Kargil conflict of 1999 and the operation in Sri Lanka against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE). More than 22,500 soldiers have died in these wars.
Though the need for a war memorial is widely accepted, the details are still hazy. An empowered steering committee, chaired by the defence secretary and a project management team, has been tasked with working out the modalities. The government has said that once commissioned, a management body will be set up for the maintenance of the war memorial and the museum.
In its 2014 budget, the government had made a provision of Rs 500 crore for the memorial. It’s unclear whether they will go ahead with the blue print of the design that was proposed during the UPA government’s tenure. That design, conceptualised by renowned architect Charles Correa, who passed away in June, had envisaged the memorial to be a circular marble structure with a canopy, inscribed with the names of post-Independence martyrs. The memorial was to be connected to the National War Museum at Princess Park through an underground tunnel.
The Cabinet nod comes after a lot of dilly-dallying. From 2003, when George Fernandes, then defence minister in the first NDA government, said the Urban Development ministry was “pursuing the land acquisition” for the war memorial, to 2012, when a government-appointed GoM under defence minister A K Antony finalised its location, the process has been painfully slow. The first real opposition to India Gate as the proposed location for the memorial came in December 2012 from Sheila Dikshit, who, as Delhi chief minister, wrote to the Centre saying the memorial would mar the view of India Gate. “Why spoil this beautiful place?,” she wrote.
Members of the armed forces, both serving and retired, were, understandably, upset. The Cabinet decision has brought some cheer, but as experience shows, there’s still a lot of ground to cover before the memorial becomes a reality.