The missing monument

Unlike in India,cities across the world have war memorials in central locations

Written by Arun Prakash | Published: April 23, 2013 1:15:57 am

Unlike in India,cities across the world have war memorials in central locations

Not long ago,Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit remarked that a national war memorial around India Gate would clutter up a recreational space and hinder people’s enjoyment. But surely the Delhi administration can create such spaces elsewhere? Pleasure seekers might find more appropriate places than Edwin Lutyens’ grand central avenue,leading from India Gate to the elegant Rashtrapati Bhavan,with the imposing North and South Blocks guarding its flanks.

The civilised world’s capitals are replete with heroic statues of soldiers,with squares and avenues named after generals,admirals and famous battles. In India,we mostly celebrate politicians,along with a few saints,film stars and cricketers. But soldiers seem to be anathema. It is worth asking whether the Delhi CM would have opposed a memorial to a politician or religious figure on the grounds that it would be a hindrance to people’s enjoyment or that it would spoil the environment. Ever since Independence,the Indian politico-bureaucratic establishment has typically regarded its soldiers,sailors and airmen with a certain disdain.

This is bizarre and incomprehensible,considering that a soldier laid down his life for the country just days after Independence. Lieutenant Colonel Dewan Ranjit Rai earned glory and a posthumous Maha Vir Chakra for fighting Pakistani raiders near Baramulla. In the 66 years since then,there has scarcely been a day in the life of our embattled nation that a grieving family somewhere has not welcomed a hero,brought home in a tricolour-draped coffin. The war memorial,if one is ever created,will be a small tribute to the memory of the young men who gave their lives for the nation.

It has been the gallantry,patriotism and selfless sacrifice of these young men that repeatedly saved the nation from disintegration and dishonour,as our strategic naivete led to adventurism by neighbours in 1947,1962,1965 and 1999. The refusal to pay homage to fallen soldiers on the anniversaries of the Bangladesh and Kargil wars,or to the Indian Peace Keeping Force (IPKF) in Sri Lanka,on specious political grounds is unforgivable,especially since Pakistan,Bangladesh and Sri Lanka celebrate these events in their own ways. The crowning national ignominy is the fact that the Sri Lankan government has been gracious enough to erect an impressive monument to the IPKF dead,while these brave soldiers remain unsung in their own motherland.

Whether it is the Arlington Memorial in Washington,the Cenotaph in London,the Arc de Triomphe in Paris or the impressive Jatiyo Smriti Soudho in Dhaka,these magnificent monuments embody the pride of nations and the spontaneous desire of citizens to acknowledge the sacrifice of their national heroes,the soldiers,sailors and airmen who have fallen in the country’s wars. All these are in prime locations in the heart of the city. Far from spoiling the environment,they evoke deeply patriotic sentiments. In India,it is only the armed forces who pay homage to their own,at the Amar Jawan Jyoti erected below India Gate. There are two bits of irony here,which seem to escape everyone.

First,India Gate is a war memorial erected by the British in memory of soldiers of who lost their lives in World War I and the Third Anglo-Afghan War. Although most of the names engraved on the granite walls are Indian,the monument does not celebrate a national war. Second,free India’s contribution to this imposing monument is merely a rifle lodged,muzzle-first,in stone,with a helmet perched on its butt. The symbol is recognised across the world as an ad hoc battlefield marker for a soldier’s temporary grave.

For a politico-bureaucratic establishment that has stubbornly refused to acknowledge,by word or deed,the sterling contribution of the soldier to India’s freedom struggle,its post-Partition consolidation and to combating the repeated assaults on its territorial integrity,the construction of a national war memorial at a central location in the Capital would be a belated but welcome gesture. It would bolster the pride and morale of not just a million and a half Indian men and women bearing arms,but also of the large fraternity of veterans who “gave their today for our tomorrow”.

The writer is a retired chief of naval staff

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