21 August 2014

A QUESTION OF HONOUR - The site for a national war memorial should not cause debate

Brijesh D. Jayal
Kargil Day Commemoration near Fort William, Calcutta, in 2001

Before the flicker of the last candle to commemorate those who laid down their lives for their motherland during the Kargil conflict dies out and memories of this 15th anniversary of Kargil Diwas begin to dim, it is perhaps time for the collective conscience of the nation to pause and reflect.

It is fair to say that this anniversary drew more public attention than have the previous ones. It is too early to judge whether this is a collective rekindling of the national conscience, the shadow of a new dispensation in South Block or some other factor, but if this shows a trend it is heartening. Because from the first time when the former prime minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee, lit a candle in 2000, if anything, the celebrations have become pro forma rather than events deserving a few moments of national remembrance of and reflection on the supreme sacrifice made by those who ‘gave their today for our tomorrow’. The reflections are about what makes these sons and daughters of India so unique that self-sacrifice comes as naturally as a daily chore to them and, indeed, what part we, as a nation and a people, have played, if any, in contributing to their making.

But first a reality check. Over the years, neither the supreme commander nor the prime minister has led the event and it is left to the defence minister and the service chiefs. The event in the capital city itself attracts little attention. The army, which lost 527 and had 1363 wounded (including gallant Indian air force officers and men), is left to commemorate the event at the Dras War Memorial, a memorial built on the foothills of Tololing Hill where some of the severest fighting took place, built not by the nation, but the Indian army.

There are also similar functions spread across the country, invariably at small memorials built not by the nation, but through initiatives of enlightened citizens and veterans. One such is at Chandigarh built by a people’s initiative backed by a national daily where, on the given day, schools send children to draw inspiration and rub shoulders with veterans.

It is possible that the solemnity of the supreme sacrifice made by soldiers, sailors and airmen is being diluted by the multiple occasions when such commemorations are held: the others being Vijay Diwas, commemorating the victory in the 1971 war and the prime minister’s homage to “Amar Jawan” on Republic Day. Or is it that by periodic unburdening of our conscience we feel that we are paying our due to these martyrs, making up in frequency what we lack in the sheer depth of our emotions and what we do for their widows. A recent media report even indicated that India has 25,000 war widows.

That is why it is perhaps an opportune moment for the nation to take a call on whether enough blood has been shed by our armed forces for us to observe a day of national remembrance when we dedicate a few moments to pause, reflect and draw inspiration from the martyrs. A day when every student from every institution from across the country is exposed to the spirit of selflessness and sacrifice that is embodied in the feats of martyrs; a day where our veterans and those serving visit these institutions of learning where the moral values and character of tomorrow’s leaders are being moulded; a day when our young learn not to take our freedom for granted and a day when no less than the supreme commander leads the nation in paying homage accompanied by his entire council of ministers. That is also a day when the solidarity of the nation is on full display to friends and foes alike. Above all else, a day when each proud citizen of this country vows to ensure that the sacrifice of martyrs has not been in vain.

But to sow the seeds of such idealism there is need for a place of worship and for preachers. Nearly every self-respecting nation that has seen its soldiers in battle has found this temple to be a national war memorial with the names of martyrs inscribed in stone. And it is these names that act as silent preachers in the periphery of this hallowed monument.

It is ironical that the British erected India Gate on the Central Vista in memory of those soldiers from our soil who fought their wars. That memorial is visible from the Rashtrapati Bhawan, Parliament House and the North and South Blocks housing the highest executive of our democracy. And yet there is no yearning in the largest democracy in the world to ask where in this magnificent Central Vista is our own memorial to those who have died fighting independent India’s wars. Sadly, it is left to the armed forces to plead for a national war memorial on this Vista, but their pleas have elicited the weakest of responses.

The ministry of defence has never shown much enthusiasm to smooth the inter-ministerial turf wars of which the national war memorial has become a victim. The last straw is the obduracy of the ministry of urban development and the Delhi Urban Arts Commission which have vetoed the proposal supposedly because the ‘ambience of the India Gate complex would be disturbed’. Seeing the continuing decay of our urban landscape one would have thought that this ministry had greater priorities than obstructing a project that symbolizes not just national solidarity, but supreme sacrifice. As for the jholawallas of the Delhi Urban Arts Commission, one wonders if this is the only way some self-importance can be extracted.

It was in 2009 that, on instructions of the then prime minister, a group of ministers under the then finance minister, Pranab Mukherjee, with the defence and urban development ministers, considered the proposal for a national war memorial. It was then reported that they had recommended the memorial at the India Gate complex. To the objections of the upholders of ambience, the ministry of defence had indicated that, designed by the noted architect, Charles Correa, the memorial would only be a little higher than the ground and most portions of the marble slabs on which the 50,000 names would be etched would actually be below ground level. They would be in a circle around the canopy next to the India Gate. People could walk along the slabs, pay their respects and move to India Gate. Indeed, on Vijay Diwas in 2010, the then defence minister had assured the armed forces that this national war memorial would be a reality.

But there is no limit to busybodies in positions of authority who, in order to camouflage their own shortcomings, use their unfettered authority to play spoilsport. One such was the then chief minister of Delhi. A media report quoted the chief minister as saying, “It is a people’s place. It is just like Marina beach and Chaupati. My point is that you can make a memorial anywhere else. Why spoil this beautiful place? Why become a hindrance to the people’s enjoyment?” These are sacrilegious observations in the context of a national war memorial and as a veteran one can only hang one’s head in shame.

The fact that in spite of the GoM’s recommendations under Pranab Mukherjee (now president and supreme commander) the process was halted makes one sadly conclude that this hopelessly frivolous view prevailed and more ominously continues to this day. So in the collective wisdom of those that govern us in the name of the people, building a national war memorial at the India Gate complex will spoil the ambience of a beautiful place and hinder people’s enjoyment. If this is the attitude of our elected representatives and those in governance, it does not surprise one that the armed forces are desperately short of officers. What is worse, this attitude will slowly eat into the vitals of the very fabric of our men and women in uniform who must wonder why they should be serving in the remotest corners of the country risking life and limb when the national priority is enjoyment of their people over homage and respect to their dead comrades. We will then be staring at a hollow security edifice.

At the conclusion of the wreath-laying ceremony at Amar Jawan Jyoti the other day, the defence minister assured the people of the country that a war memorial would be built and that necessary funds had been earmarked. What, however, will not be music to the ears of the armed forces, the veterans and some 25,000 war widows is his statement that it will be centred on the Princess Park complex. This is tantamount to giving in to the ‘Marina Beach, Chaupati syndrome’ and will be a betrayal of our martyred soldiers, sailors and airmen and the entire veteran and armed forces fraternity and will be received with deep disappointment.

This writer, for one, strongly believes that no matter how grand and big the new complex at Princess Park, it will be soulless. Soulless because our worthy leaders did not deem it fit to accord it a place on the Central Vista in the company of India Gate which commemorates those of our countrymen who laid down their lives fighting for the British and it will be soulless because the nation does not care.

Here is an appeal to the prime minister on behalf of those of our uniformed colleagues who gave their all and can speak no more.

“Honour us with a national war memorial on the Central Vista or leave us alone to be worshipped in our units and messes where at least we know our memories are treated with honour and dignity.”

The author is a retired air marshal of the Indian Air Force

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