With the announcement of the construction of a National War Memorial and Museum at India Gate and Princes’ Park, a long-pending demand for a war memorial in the heart of Delhi will be met.
India has many war memorials, mostly erected and maintained by the armed forces to remember their fallen brethren, but there are a few being run by the civilians too.
Unlike many countries of South America or Africa, the Indian armed forces did not emerge out of the war of independence which was led by the Congress party under Gandhi, Nehru and Patel. The armed forces are a legatee of the British. The proposed war memorial at India Gate signals continuity with the British legacy of the Indian armed forces.
Unveiled in 1931, India Gate was designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens. It was then known as the All India War Memorial, and commemorated the soldiers of the Indian Army who lost their lives while fighting as British allies in the First World War and the Third Anglo-Afghan War — 13,300 Commonwealth servicemen are commemorated by name.
Thereafter, India Gate, or the Delhi Memorial as the Commonwealth War Graves Commission still calls it, has also acted as a national memorial to all the 70,000 soldiers of pre-independence India who served and died in every main theatre of operations except Italy during the First World War.
The Amar Jawan Jyoti, or the flame of the immortal soldier which marks the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has been burning in a shrine under the arch of India Gate since 1971. As noted by former bureaucrat and minister, MS Gill,
it was at the initiative of then Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi following India’s 1971 war victory that an inverted rifle with a helmet was placed on the raised plinth.
It was inaugurated by Indira Gandhi on 26 January 1972, the 23rd Republic Day. Amar Jawan Jyoti is manned round the clock by soldiers drawn from the three services of the Indian armed forces. On every Republic Day, homage is paid at the Amar Jawan Jyoti by the Prime Minister and the three military chiefs.
Incidentally, Delhi already has an Indian War Memorial Museum at Red Fort in Delhi. This museum was set up as a tribute to the soldiers who had participated in the world war in India or abroad on behalf of the British. Naubat Kahana or Naqqar Khana (Musical house) of the Red Fort was chosen to accommodate the museum in its first and second floors. It is currently run by the Archeological Survey of India.
War memorials were, historically, constructed to commemorate great military victories by the rulers but the dead were scarcely remembered. As former military officer and academic Anit Mukherjee has pointed out, it was only
after the American Civil War, that the idea took root that governments are obligated to honour their war dead by naming and counting them. Historian Drew Gilpin Faust notes in her seminal book, This Republic of Suffering, “A
name upon a list was like a name upon a grave, a repository of memory, a gesture of immortality for those who had made the supreme sacrifice.”
That has to be the way forward for the proposed national memorial – one that does not glorify war or pander to jingoistic nationalism but honours and commemorates those who have laid down their lives in uniform. That
would befit a democratic, modern India – and the more than 26,500 soldiers the memorial intends to remember.