Memoralising our heroes

If you are visiting New Delhi this year, be prepared to be disappointed with its most iconic hexagon. Screens have been placed around the ‘C’ hexagon of India Gate with strategically positioned signs announcing the construction of ‘NWM’, the national war memorial.

For more than five decades now, the Indian armed forces have been demanding a stand-alone memorial to commemorate the sacrifice of their men since Independence. It is a request that has been heeded but only in fits and starts. While in 2012 the United Progressive Alliance government identified the location for the memorial, it was in 2015 that the National Democratic Alliance gave the go-ahead for its construction.

India has war memorials as well as roads and lanes named after those who gave their lives for the nation. But these have been scattered efforts by either the military or local governments, honouring particular battles and individual sacrifices. Our grandest war memorial still remains India Gate, built by the British to pay tribute to Indian soldiers who died in World War 1 and the Afghan war. After the 1971 war, Indira Gandhi had the Amar Jawan Jyoti (Eternal Flame of the Soldier) added.

In 2014, the centenary of the start of World War I, India commemorated the honour of the men sent to fight for the colonial masters. Exhibitions were set up, stories of valour celebrated and families honoured. Later, the Prime Minister and President laid down wreaths in places as far-flung as Neuve Chapelle in France and Papua New Guinea.

Military historians have asked: if we pay homage to our men who fell even before Independence, why do we shy away from honouring those who have done the same post-Independence?

Memorials are not just a society’s way of honouring the men and women who have fought for its sovereignty but also of helping a new generation understand how hard-fought freedom is. Some like the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC remind us about the ultimate futility of war. India has fought a few wars since Independence, and while the demand for a national war memorial is more than justified, the timing of its construction raises a few thoughts.

Over the past few years, the forces have found themselves thrust into the heart of a narrative that thrives on patriotism and a virulent form of nationalism. The soldier has been recast as the model citizen one must aspire to.

The firm which has won the competition to build the memorial has been given a strict deadline within which the project has to be wrapped up. Details of the design are not easily available.

Memorials are a place for both public and private grief. More than anything, they provide an outlet for the loss of the families of the fallen. The NWM needs to serve this purpose and will hopefully not be used as a poll ploy.

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