The flame of Amar Jawan Jyoti has finally got a fitting space

The crowded India Gate area was no longer apt as nowhere in the world are war memorials places for casualness or fun

Reshmi Dasgupta January 23, 2022 14:51:19 IST
The flame of Amar Jawan Jyoti has finally got a fitting space

Amar Jawan Jyoti, memorial at India Gate. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons

The poignant memorial we all know as Amar Jawan Jyoti was a brilliant improvisation by Indira Gandhi, as the poignant photo of her paying homage there emphasises. After India’s triumph over Pakistan in 1971—which saw a surrender, unlike the ceasefire of 1965—the need to commemorate that landmark event was natural, but there was no time to build a new one by 1972. So the eternal fire, helmet and reversed rifle and made an ingenious quick alternative.

Moving and merging the eternal fire with the one consecrated at the National War Memorial behind India Gate marks the completion of an idea, the fulfilment of a silent promise. For, it was indeed a matter of considerable embarrassment that decades after Independence, the main military memorial in the National Capital was the magnificent India Gate designed by Sir Edwin Lutyens, ironically only made for Indians who died fighting for the British Empire, not India.

Inscribed on India Gate are the words “To the dead of the Indian armies who fell and are honoured in France and Flanders, Mesopotamia and Persia, East Africa, Gallipoli and elsewhere in the Near and the Far East and in sacred memory also of those whose names are here recorded and who fell in India on the North-West Frontier and during the Third Afghan War”.

The need to properly commemorate the Indian soldiers who died since 1919 was glaringly apparent.

There are two separate national memorials for World War I & II in Washington DC, both set in serene green environs. They are perfect places for respectful contemplation and to honour those US soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice. The US capital also has memorials to honour those who died in the Korean War of 1950-1953 and the long Vietnam War that ended in 1975; both feature walls with the names of the soldiers who died there besides other symbols.

The modest stone Cenotaph in London— like India Gate, also designed by Edwin Lutyens—and built just after World War I is now Britain’s official national war memorial. This design was widely copied for war memorials elsewhere in the Anglosphere—then Empire, now Commonwealth—but for India there were obviously grander plans. Maybe Britain was trying to make a point in its largest and most precious colony when its military power was facing challenges.

But for a country that has fought several wars since Independence and has one of the largest standing armies in the world, the lack of a proper memorial for fallen Indian soldiers was quite unconscionable. If anything, such memorials serve as reminders of the human cost of war and the steep price of freedom, rather than endorse jingoism or militarism—often reasons for opposition to such monuments. The National War Memorial behind India Gate was long overdue.

Interestingly, a “national war memorial” had been the subject of government deliberations right from 1961. Yet, the modest and obviously hurriedly-conceived and executed Amar Jawan Jyoti came up only after India had fought three more wars. Indianising a British memorial by making a marble pedestal under its arch—in time for the prime minister to pay homage on 26 January, 1972— was a clever idea but did not do justice to the larger cause that it was meant to serve.

There was another attempt by the defence ministry under AK Antony in 2006 to get sanction for a National War Memorial at the very spot where it now stands but it did not find favour with heritage panels. Unlike the complex that has now come up—where all elements are eye level rather than monumental—that design envisaged a structure which would be the same height as the plinth of the empty sandstone canopy that once housed a statue of ‘King-Emperor’ George V.

After a Cabinet decision in 2015, the Chennai-based architects WeBe Design Lab won a global competition for its design in 2017, and the National War Memorial was opened in 2019. Covering over 40 acres at one end of the Central Vista, it is dedicated to Indian soldiers who died during wars with Pakistan in 1948, 1965, 1971 and 1999, with China in 1962 and in the recent conflict at Galwan, besides the casualties of IPKF in Sri Lanka and UN peacekeeping missions.

Besides retired soldiers and their families, successive prime ministers, our three armed forces brass and visiting dignitaries always gave the Amar Jawan Jyoti memorial under India Gate’s arch due respect. But the millions of other daily visitors milling around taking selfies, chatting and munching on snacks from roadside vendors were hardly mindful of the gravitas of the flame, gun and helmet. Nowhere in the world are memorials places for casualness.

However, thanks to the exigencies of untrammelled growth of New Delhi, India Gate’s extensive lawns have also become a haven for people to enjoy open spaces and greenery. It was unfair to expect them to be sombre just because Amar Jawan Jyoti also happened to be located there.

On the other hand, now the National War Memorial is there, just a stone’s throw away, for those milling millions to go and pay their respects to our brave departed soldiers and the eternal flame.

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