Bhikiwind is over 2,600 km from Bengaluru. A journey from war to peace, from the hot winds of the north Indian plains to the gentle breeze of a salubrious southern city. That’s how it was, perhaps, for an M-47 Patton tank that now sits placidly on a fork on Victoria Layout, opposite the ASC Centre and College, in the heart of the Karnataka capital. Not a bad deal, perhaps, even if it came with some ignominy.
The Pakistani tank was captured in Bhikiwind, a Punjab town along the border, in the fierce Battle of Assal Uttar in the 1965 India-Pakistan war — in which the surrounding villages are said to have turned into a graveyard of Pakistani Patton tanks. The M-47’s turret has to point downward, in acknowledgement of that defeat. The low profile is apt — it is, after all, a tank in retirement in a city once meant for retired people. It sits on the premises of the Dronacharya Officers’ Mess, barred to outsiders, though it is visible from the footpath abutting it.
This is a military area — the ASC College trains only Army personnel — and the usual restrictions on civilian exuberance apply. “No one can simply come, take pictures,” says Mahesh Kumar, a soldier showing us around.
On this August day, for example, no selfie seekers stop by to frame it in their 10 MP front cameras. No curious schoolboy has stopped in his tracks at the sight of the enemy’s battle machine. Franklin, a Class IX student of Army Public School, housed inside the sprawling ASC Centre and College campus, has his ears plugged into a stream of Badshah songs. He walks by without a second look. “It’s an Indian tank, no?” he says, grinning when he is finally prodded to look. Is it a part of their Independence Day celebrations at school? “No, the tank stays where it is. Maybe it gets cleaned or something,” says M Pritham, Franklin’s classmate, with the breezy nonchalance of the young.
The M-47 does get a daily rub-down, like everything else in the well-oiled Army campus, and an annual coat of paint — its only battle now against the rust that comes every monsoon. “I don’t know anything about it,” says Shobha Tiwari, a primary section teacher at the school. “I am a civilian,” she adds. That logic might not cut much ice with M Jagadesh Kumar, the Vice-Chancellor of Jawaharlal Nehru University, who recently urged the Centre to install a battle tank on the campus to instill patriotism in his civilian students.
“Where is the space to keep a tank in a civilian area in Bengaluru? It is so congested,” says Narayan Burli, an employee of the Defence Accounts Department, with a look of exasperation at the vehicles that have coalesced near the red light, a few metres away. He, however, seconds the proposal to park one in faraway JNU in Delhi, launching into a short speech about how patriotic fervour has to be created in India where, unlike in Europe, “the nation is more important than the individual”.
“Usually, these war trophies are kept at regimental centres and Army training establishments. They are meant to inspire our cadets, and encourage civilians to join the Army,” says Brigadier Ashok Choudhary, Commandant of the ASC Centre and College. While they are also sometimes displayed in civilian institutions, there is no data on the number of tanks issued to educational institutions, sources in the Army say.
Not much is known about how and when the tank took its modest place opposite the centre. A local tabloid puts the date at 1976, but the Army officials at the centre, more bemused by the interest in a relic past its relevance, could not confirm it. In 1965, the M-47, historian Srinath Raghavan says, would have been part of “some of the fiercest tank battles, after the two World Wars”. But now, he adds, more than their importance in war, tanks have become a symbol of the current need “felt by the armed forces and people outside to force-feed jingoism, nationalism and patriotism”.
Three friends from north India nod gravely at these big questions, but they would rather talk about rotis — and how glad they are to be able to converse in Hindi. “The chappatis here are too thick. Khaane ki bahut pareshani hai (Food is a big problem),” says Sachin, who is from Kanpur, and like his friends, an employee of the Army’s Canteen Stores Department.
The footpath stirs into life in the afternoon, as civilian employees of the military area head for lunch and schoolchildren make their way home. Not a bird has perched on the squat, massive machine in all these hours. The afternoon sun shines on the plaque that announces the brief, inglorious history of M-47. But the butterflies flit around, unconcerned.