Merger of flames was avoidable

  • Harwant Singh

India Gate is a War Memorial built in the memory of 83,000 Indian soldiers who laid down their lives during the First World War and British officers and soldiers killed in North-West Frontier Province (in the Third Afghan War). The foundation stone of India Gate was laid by His Royal Highness the Duke of Cannaught in 1921.

‘Amar Jawan Jyoti’ was placed under India Gate after Indo-Pak war of 1971 in Jan 1972, by the then PM, Smt. Indira Gandhi, to commemorate this great victory against Pakistan. The black marble structure has four corners where four eternal flames were lit. On this marble slab is placed an inverted rifle with helmet on it. This eternal flame came to be related to all those soldiers, (army, air force and navy) who laid down their lives during 1971 war against Pakistan.

India’s campaign against East Pakistan ranks amongst the greatest campaigns in world history, where India also took 93000 prisoners. India’s last great victory took place in 305 BC, when Chandragupta Maurya defeated Alexander’s general, Seleucus Nicator. Therefore, this war of 1971 has a special place in India’s military history and must be celebrated as a separate event and at the location of its memorial under India Gate and not combined with the National War Memorial. The latter collectively relates to all the battles fought after independence and records the names of all those who laid down their lives in these battles.

Each great battle has its own place in the history of a nation and cannot be clubbed or merged with another battle. While United States of America’s military fought many a successful battle during the Second World War and has a National War Memorial, yet annual celebrations at some other war memorials are annually held with full pomp and glory. Thus, the site of the last great battle of American Civil War at Getesburg, has nearly 100 unit and formation memorials, with guns still in their battle locations. Half a million Americans assemble every year to celebrate this battle, where some of the actions of that battle at unit levelare staged by the locals, wearing full military uniforms of that period.

The shifting of Amar Jawan Jyoti from the War Memorial under India Gate and merging it with one at National War Memorialcould have been avoided. After all India Gate and National War Memorial are, more or less, part of one complex, yet have different historical perspectives. In this process of shifting of Amar Jawan Jyoti to National War Memorial, there is little justification to denigrate India Gate as a relic of British Empire as is being projected by some veterans and thus not suitable for Amar Jawan Jyoti. This is a sheer disregard of those eighty three thousand Indian soldiers who laid down their lives in this war. These soldiers were Indians and part of Indian army. Equally, where Bose’s statue is to be installed is also a relic of British Empire and earlier King George V’s statue was under this very canopy.

British subjugation of India is part of our history and cannot be erased. We as Indians failed to hold out against foreign invasions for centuries and there is a lesson to learn from our failures by keeping alive these memories and ensure that we do not fall prey to those very failings, which led to this long period of slavery.

War memorials are meant to honour soldiers and soldiering as such and commemorate great battles. Each battle has its own history and record of valour and sacrifice of troops and thus the related memorial has an element of inviolability. For constructing Saragarhi memorial at Ferozepur, stones were brought from the Saragarhi Post on the Samana Ridge in North-West Frontier. When the two guns at this memorial were shifted to the Flag Staff House, I called up the General Officer commanding and pointed to him the inappropriateness of this step. He pleaded ignorance and told me that these will be put back at the memorial. Sometimes we forget the sanctity of these memorials.

For the Indian soldier, “Naam, Namak and Nishan” and oath have been the guiding principle and it matters little whose flag it was under which they fought. These memorials, besides honouring those who laid down their lives, also act as part of history of an army/unit, as also inspire and motivate future generations of soldiers to live up to such gallant acts.

In France, there is a War Memorial at Nauve Chappelle built in the memory of Indian soldiers who laid down their lives defending France, during the First World War. It is of Indian design and the central pillar has Gurmukhi lettering. To this day, annually a formal ceremony is held and attended by French veterans, serving soldiers and locals, to honour those Indian soldiers who laid down their lives defending France.

There are a large number of war memorials spread all over India, which relate to specific battles, conducted at formation and unit level. Regular ceremonies are held and wreaths laid at each of these, on specific dates.

(The writer is a retired Lt. General and a war veteran)