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Don’t make distinction between India’s fallen heroes. Find a fitting way to pay tribute

The controversy on the merger of the 50-year-old Amar Jawan Jyoti at India Gate — eternal flame of the immortal soldier — with the eternal flame of the National War Memorial, 350 meters away, brought to the fore the complex history of the Indian Army and the need to commemorate all its soldiers killed in action. The Indian Army traces its history back to 1757 when companies of garrison guards of various presidency trading towns were organised into regular battalions.

Soldiers fight for government of the day. The fallen soldiers of the Indian Army up to 1947 fought and died under the Union Jack as part of the colonial Army and thereafter under the Tricolour of independent India. We also have soldiers who in colonial terms “mutinied” and died fighting or were hung/blown by cannon in the First War of Independence, 1857-58. In a similar category, we have soldiers who, as Prisoners of War, joined the Indian National Army and died fighting alongside the Japanese Army in Kohima, Imphal, Burma, 1942-45. The Indian National Army also had its counterparts in Italy — Battaglione Azad Hindoustan, and in Germany, the Free Indian Legion. Despite the anathema armies have for “rebels” and “mutineers”, given our unique history, the latter two categories deserve and must be treated as fallen soldiers.

The controversy gives the government and the nation an opportunity to de novo examine the emotional issue of honouring its fallen soldiers.

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An unnecessary controversy

Amar Jawan Jyoti was a temporary war memorial inaugurated on 26 January 1972 to commemorate the soldiers who died in the 1971 War, though not specifically mentioned. It was constructed at one month’s notice, limiting the choice of the location and design. The armed forces chose the simplest design — a marble pedestal with a cenotaph for the unknown soldier, and on top of it was fixed an inverted rifle with a helmet on top, the traditional military way to pay homage. The pedestal had four urns for the eternal flame to signify immortality, one of which was permanently burning and all four burnt on ceremonial occasions. Amar Jawan Jyoti is located in the base of India Gate .

I recall that even at that time (1972), Amar Jawan Jyoti was mired in controversies. The simple design and size was criticised for not being regal enough. The location being under a colonial memorial was also condemned by many. However, back then, since  most of the Generals and Subedar Majors of our victorious Army were products of the colonial army and over the years  a balance had been struck between the Army’s colonial past and a Republican present, the issue received no traction. Another contention was that the inverted rifle with a helmet symbolised the   linked to Christianity. The concern was logically brushed aside that with over the 100 years of its existence, the practice had become part of soldiering and no longer symbolised  Christianity per se.

Until 2019, Amar Jawan Jyoti served as the de facto National War Memorial for all State and military homage to the fallen soldiers. On Independence Day, the President, and on Republic Day, the Prime Minister, accompanied by the Chief of Defence Staff and Service Chiefs laid wreaths to pay homage. Because of free public access by day and night and telecast of formal functions, Amar Jawan Jyoti became an emotional symbol for the nation.

In my view, the merger of the Amar Jawan Jyoti with the eternal flame at the National War Museum was a logical action. Two eternal flames for the immortal soldier divided by 350 meters made no sense. The controversy was due to the hasty political decision and the ham handed and crude explanation given by the “government sources” to select journalists. “The names inscribed on the India Gate are of only some martyrs who fought for the British in World War I and the Anglo-Afghan War and thus is a symbol of our colonial past,” said one such source.

This started a political slugfest between the Congress and the BJP. A section of media and the neo-nationalists added fuel to the fire. In no time, the pre-Independence history of the armed forces lay in tatters. Soldiers of that era overnight became enslaved “mercenaries” fighting for their colonial masters which included the Generals and senior JCOs who led us to our greatest victory in 1,000 years in 1971.

It would have been prudent to explain the merger of the eternal flames well in advance to the public and to the opposition, particularly the Congress party which links the Amar Jawan Jyoti to Indira Gandhi being the political architect of 1971 victory and conceiver of the memorial. More so, when senior military officials are on record saying that Amar Jawan Jyoti will continue to exist as hitherto  once the National War Memorial was inaugurated .

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The way forward

Like a crisis, every controversy offers an opportunity. History cannot be wished away or demonised because what we are today has been shaped by it. Our colonial past is visible in every facet of our national life, the English language, modes of dressing, ceremonials, residences and offices of the political hierarchy. It is an intrinsic part of the Indian Armed Forces. Our wars up to 1971 were fought by officers and soldiers who were groomed in the pre-Independence army. Neither can we wish away the soldiers who died fighting on both sides in the First War of Independence or as part of the Indian National Army and its counterparts in Italy and Germany. Our fallen soldiers are recognised by many countries across the globe who have made befitting memorials for them. My view is that no distinction must be made in respect of our fallen soldiers and their sacrifice must be recognised.

I recommend that the entire stretch from the India Gate to the National War Memorial must be dedicated to recognise our fallen soldiers as the Amar Jawan Memorial Park  or given any other appropriate name. Around the India Gate, should be a refurbished memorial for the colonial era. India Gate, though dedicated to all fallen soldiers from 1914 to 1921, has names of only 13,313 soldiers who were killed in  North West Frontier Province and in the Third Anglo Afghan War.  The monument is today in a state of decay and requires urgent restoration. The refurbished memorial with additions  must record the fallen soldiers of all wars and expeditions before Independence, including the First and Second World Wars. This memorial can be called the  Pre-Independence War Memorial.

Civilians who joined the Indian National Army and died fighting must be treated at par. The sacrifice of all civilians and revolutionaries who died fighting the colonial rule must also be commemorated as part of this memorial. This memorial can be called the  Freedom Memorial.

The National War Memorial must continue to function as our principal ceremonial memorial for commemoration of all fallen soldiers since Independence. In the concept proposed by me, there is a case for the Amar Jawan Jyoti to be relocated in the National War Memorial complex after political and public consensus. National War Museum, as proposed, will be linked to the complex and will be an all-encompassing record of our military heritage from ancient times.

Indian military has always remained apolitical and our soldiers died fighting on the orders of the government of the day and in the exceptions cited, given our unique past, for our freedom. Making a distinction between the fallen soldiers strikes at the core values of our armed forces. Politicians, media and the public must remain sensitive to this issue. We cannot place the military on a pedestal and then make its foundation hollow.

Lt Gen H S Panag PVSM, AVSM (R) served in the Indian Army for 40 years. He was GOC in C Northern Command and Central Command. Post retirement, he was Member of Armed Forces Tribunal. Views are personal.

(Edited by Anurag Chaubey)

Source: The Print

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