Tuesday, September 4, 2012

National War Memorial

National War Memorial, at last
The ‘Unknown Soldier’ deserved it
by Lt-Gen Harwant Singh (retd)
IT is more than half a century since the proposal to build a national war memorial at a suitable place in New Delhi was mooted by the defence services. All this time the proposal was being put off for no valid reason. It had been a sustained attempt by successive governments in the Capital to keep the military in the background and, as a policy, never to give due recognition to its services and highlight the achievements and sacrifices made to the nation. The bureaucracy, with a view to keeping the military suppressed, has succeeded in injecting into the political executive the fear of a military takeover of the country. The developments in the neighbouring countries served to reinforce such fears in the minds of the political class.
The media’s role has been anything but laudable. At another level, there has been complete apathy on the part of the public at large and the so-called civil society for building a National War Memorial. After all, it is for the protection and safety of people of this country that these gallant men gave up their lives. Therefore, the idea of National War Museum has been a victim of this policy and attitude of indifference.
India has been the scene of innumerable battles, yet it never evolved a military tradition and resources enough to meet the challenge from invading armies. The soldier was seldom given recognition for his valour and sacrifices. Nations that value freedom and abhor foreign rule remember and honour those who sacrifice their lives for the defence of the country. They honour their martyrs in all possible ways as also build memorials to acknowledge their sacrifices. Unfortunately in India, there has been no tradition or practice to raise memorials to honour those who sacrificed their lives in defence of this land and commemorate battles in which they fell.
The concept of raising war memorials as such was, perhaps, first introduced in India by the British. Some historians have tried to classify the Qutab Minar in Delhi, the Victory Towers in Chittorgarh and Tughlakabad (down South) as a sort of memorials, but that claim is contestable. These were more to honour and highlight the achievements of the king or the conqueror than the common soldier. However, in other parts of the world the tradition of raising memorials in one form or the other has been in vogue from prehistoric times — in the form of ‘Burial Mounds’, ‘Obelisks’, crosses, the female figure as a symbol of victory, statues, structures, arches, etc.
It was the shattering experience of World War I that set in motion the urge to build memorials all over — in every town and village in Europe and elsewhere. In addition to these innumerable memorials, each of these countries, whose soldiers took part in this war, built national war memorials at the most appropriate places. In England, it is next to Whitehall in the heart of London. It is around this time that the concept of an “Unknown Soldier” was evolved and national memorials started being dedicated to him. Arch-de-Triumphe in Paris is the most prominent memorial; it is at this place that the idea of an “Unknown Soldier” was first put into practice. An “Unknown Soldier” lies buried in the Arch complex.
The British built a number of war memorials to commemorate their battle victories against Indian troops. The last great memorial they built to honour the Indian soldiers who fell in World War I is India Gate in New Delhi. While it has the names of all those who laid down their lives in this Great War, on the gate (a memorial arch) are also the manes of British officers who were killed in the NorthWest Frontier. Though some smaller memorials were built in the North-East to honour those who fell defending India against the Japanese offensive across Burma during World War II, no main war memorial could be built to honour the killed Indian troops. Thus, there is no memorial for Indian troops who sacrificed their lives during this war. Many of them had died defending India against the Japanese and others in North Africa and Italy to defend freedom.
India has fought a number of wars since Independence where thousands of soldiers (the term “soldiers” includes airmen and sailors and their officers) died but their sacrifices have never been properly recognised. Therefore, the decision of the government to finally build a National War Memorial in New Delhi should be welcome. The approval to build it near India Gate is both befitting and laudable.
This memorial needs to be dedicated not only to those who fell in the battles after Independence, including those of the Indian Peace Keeping Force during Operation Pawan in Sri Lanka, but also those who laid down their lives during World War II. The failure to do so will be a great injustice to the memory of those who sacrificed their lives in that great struggle.
The monument to be thus constructed must be of a grand design and scale, befitting the valour and sacrifices of those whose memory it aims to perpetuate. It must match India Gate in design, scale and grandeur. It ought to portray the unwavering loyalty, devotion and dedication of the Indian soldier (which includes airmen and sailors) to the country. It would be a place where all visiting dignitaries must be taken to pay homage to the “Unknown Soldier”. Some suggestions are doing the rounds that it should have a statue of a particular Indian general. National War Memorials as such never have a statue. There may be statues of a group of soldiers involved in some activity related to their deeds of valour, etc. National War Memorials are invariably dedicated to the “Unknown Soldier”, “The lads who took the copje (rocky outcrop) and are not known.”
The Tribune: National War Memorial, at last

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