The Amar Jawan Jyoti -- an upturned rifle with a helmet customarily marking a battlefield grave -- amounted to nothing short of a poor apology for a war memorial at India Gate
Seventy-five years after Independence, Prime Minister Narendra Modi installed a hologram statue of Netaji Subhas Bose at the raised pedestal near India Gate in New Delhi on January 23, 2022, marking the Indian independence leader's 125th birth anniversary. (A granite statue is to be installed later to commemorate the man who sought to fight for India's independence through a short-lived war, by alliance with the Axis powers, Germany and Japan, as a counterpoise - and complementary to - Mahatma Gandhi's nonviolent struggle).
Two days earlier, on January 21, the flame of the Amar Jawan Jyoti (Eternal Soldier Flame) at India Gate was merged with the flame at the National War Memorial (NWM), in a move the Modi government referred to as historic for India. In a solemn ceremony, the Amar Jawan Jyoti flame was taken by a soldier in ceremonial uniform who marched with it to the NWM, 400 meters to the east of India Gate. It is relevant to recall how some wrongs of India’s long-suppressed or twisted history are being put right.
When this writer on a trip to the US in 2014 visited the Arlington National Cemetery, he observed that it was an emotional experience for not only soldiers but civilians who came there. And the crowds that come to visit national war memorials in the US are a testimony to the fact that no matter what the cause of deployment of US forces in any conflict, even those publicly perceived as futile or unnecessary, the respect that dead soldiers get is indeed wide and heartfelt.
The grounds of Arlington National Cemetery honour those who have served the nation by providing a sense of serenity and peace. The rolling green hills are dotted with trees that are hundreds of years in age and complement the gardens found throughout the 624 acres of the cemetery. One recalls feeling utterly appalled about how Indian governments since independence had never bothered to make a war memorial, and how it failed to inculcate national pride.
The majestic India Gate was built by the British as a memorial to 74,187 Indian soldiers killed in various battles of World War I and as many of their names as possible are etched on all the walls of this memorial. The other WW I war memorial is Teen Murti, literally meaning three statues, dedicated to the Indian Cavalry for its valiant role and, incidentally, its last one as horsed cavalry, because by World War II horsed cavalry had become mechanized.
While about 1.5 million Indian soldiers fought in WW I (1914-18), in WW II (1939-45) 2.5 million Indian Armed Forces personnel took part and over 87,000 of them were killed. Field Marshal Sir Claude Auchinleck, Commander-in-Chief of the Indian Army from 1942, asserted the British "couldn't have come through both wars (WWs I and II) if they hadn't had the Indian Army. "
INA and the Raj
Had a war memorial for WW II been built by the British it would have been larger than India Gate. But because the British got somewhat rattled by the growing advances of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose’s Azad Hind Fauj (Indian National Army or INA), and following a mutiny by some Indian Navy sailors shortly after WW II, they felt compelled to leave India in a hurry.
According to Lt Gen Subrata Saha (retd.), writing in India Narrative on January 23, exploits of the INA inspired the Naval Mutiny in Bombay and its reverberations reached naval bases in Calcutta, Vizag, Madras and Karachi, with slogans of “Strike for Bombay”, “Release 11,000 INA prisoners” and “Jai Hind”.
Likewise, the Royal Air Force strike in January 1946 at Bamhrauli (Allahabad), spreading to Karachi, Dum Dum (Calcutta), Kanpur, Palam (Delhi), Poona, Vizag, and Chaklala and the Army Signals Training Centre mutiny in Jabalpur in February 1946 shook the British, who got cracking to make a quick final exit.
Independent India was destined for many wars. Independence itself was closely followed by the first India–Pakistan war of 1947-48. Then came the Sino-Indian War in 1962, the second and third India-Pakistan wars in 1965 and 1971, many insurgencies and conflicts overseas for which Indian Armed Forces have participated widely as part of United Nations missions and the fourth India-Pakistan 'war', which began from Jammu and Kashmir in the late 1980s and which continues till date.
However, till 2014, the Indian government - under the Congress party for 56 of 67 years - never made any move towards building a national war memorial. Sometime after it assumed charge in 2014, the BJP, under Prime Minister Narendra Modi, announced its plan of making a national war memorial. Some years after the 1971 Indo-Pakistan war, the then government of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi sanctioned the Amar Jawan Jyoti, a tiny space marked by an upturned rifle with a helmet perched on it and a flame at India Gate.
To honour the sacrifices of thousands of Indian soldiers, sailors and airmen in four wars and many other conflicts till 1971, an upturned rifle with a helmet customarily marking a battlefield grave actually amounted to nothing short of mockery or a poor apology for a war memorial.
Having announced in 2014, the BJP government finally got going with the construction of the National War Memorial as part of the India Gate complex on Rajpath. On February 25, 2019, Prime Minister Modi inaugurated the Rashtriya Samar Smaarak, India’s National War Memorial, built over a sprawling stretch behind India Gate and opposite the National Stadium. Dedicated to every soldier, sailor and airman martyred while fighting for India since independence, it began with the names of 25,942 fatal battle casualties inscribed on 16 walls of the Memorial.
Leave alone not instituting a war memorial and often stonewalling whenever the matter came up, after the recent merging of the flame of Amar Jawan Jyoti with that at the NWM, former Congress President Rahul Gandhi attacked the Modi government, accusing it of “extinguishing” the Amar Jawan Jyoti and adding that "some people cannot understand patriotism". Such ridiculous comments from him are not surprising.
After the "surgical strikes" against Pakistani terrorists in 2016, some senior Congress leaders and left-liberal activists politicized and ridiculed patriotism and national pride. Some of these Congress leaders even questioned the authenticity of the surgical strikes and also criticized the Army's actions in Kashmir Valley.
(The author is a former spokesperson, Ministry of Defence and Indian Army. The views are personal. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org)