Why all song and dance over ‘eternal flame’ and ‘Abide With Me’ is politically motivated

The merger of flames and the music at Beating Retreat are being flagged for political reasons as the nation is in election mode

Maj Gen Harsha Kakar January 28, 2022 13:27:01 IST
Why all song and dance over ‘eternal flame’ and ‘Abide With Me’ is politically motivated

PM Modi at the National War Memorial. ANI

The government’s decision to merge the flames at India Gate with the recently constructed National War Memorial resulted in unprecedented political controversy. Added to this was the dropping of ‘Abide With Me’ from the Beating of Retreat programme in favour of ‘Mere Watan Ke Log’. Historically, India Gate was constructed by the British to mark the sacrifice of those who fought in World War I and the Anglo-Afghan War. The names inscribed are a fraction of the 90,000 who died, including some Britishers. The eternal flame was placed outside India Gate in 1972 to respect those who sacrificed their lives in the 1971 war.

On 1 September 1972, in response to a question in the Lok Sabha, then defence minister Jagjivan Ram said, “A temporary war memorial with an Amar Jawan Jyoti has already been constructed under the arch of the India Gate in Delhi. A proposal to construct a permanent war memorial (Amar Jawan) at Delhi to commemorate all our war dead since Independence is under active consideration of the government.” Hence, once a permanent memorial would have been constructed, the flame should have moved from its temporary location. Almost five decades later, a permanent National War Memorial was created in the vicinity of India Gate.

This memorial has names of all who sacrificed their lives for the nation since Independence. It was the demand of the forces which fructified decades after it was requested. Every nation has its own memorial to honour its soldiers, while India still respects its fallen during the British era. Both memorials are in a common complex and would remain for eternity. However, there is a need to have one flame in remembrance of those who sacrificed their lives in uniform, irrespective under whose flag they fought, after all they were Indian soldiers. Ideally, such a flame should be at the National War Memorial where all official ceremonies are conducted.

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This is what the government has done, and it should be respected. Giving it political overtones or claiming that it is breaking tradition is illogical.

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The symbolic merging of flames was done with full military honours respecting the sentiments of soldiers, past and present.

‘Abide With Me’ was a hymn created by Scottish Anglican Henry Francis Lyte in 1847. It was a favourite of Mahatma Gandhi and had been a part of Beating the Retreat since its inception in 1950. Jawaharlal Nehru had selected this hymn to honour the thoughts of Gandhi. Post the 1962 war, the song, marking tribute to the valour of Indian soldiers, 'Mere Watan Ke Log', was sung by Lata Mangeshkar. The song remains one of India’s most popular numbers.

It is said that on hearing her sing, Nehru was in tears. Currently, on every occasion, across the country, marked for honouring soldiers or even those who fought for the nation’s independence, this song is played. Most of us have heard it from school days and would be more moved with this song than with ‘Abide With Me’. ‘Mere Watan Ke Log’ always builds a feeling of patriotism, which ‘Abide With Me’ does not. It therefore has more merit in the Indian context.

Why all song and dance over eternal flame and Abide With Me is politically motivated

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

Further, as tweeted by Air Marshal Anil Chopra, the decision as to which numbers are to be played in Beating the Retreat, is not determined by the political dispensation but by the Principal Personal Officers Committee (PPOC) of the three services. He tweeted, “Unnecessary controversy on tunes for Beating the Retreat. I was a member of the tri-services PPOC committee from 2010-12. We used to decide what tunes to be played at Beating the Retreat. Even then our effort was to gradually keep bringing India composed marching and other tunes.” It is time we move towards Indian numbers which have a deeper meaning for the Indian public. Hence, the controversy of sticking to tradition has no real meaning.

Both, the merger of flames and the music at Beating the Retreat are being flagged for political reasons as the nation is in election mode. Ideally, none of the two issues has any merit. It is time we need to rise above our political affiliations and accept that in a growing India we need to be more Indianised than Anglicised. It is time we respect Indian memorials and music rather than sticking to the past.

The author is a former Indian Army officer, strategic analyst and columnist. Views expressed are personal.

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