Friday, February 1, 2008

A WAR MEMORIAL FOR FREE INDIA'S FORGOTTEN SOLDIERS




Central to Edwin Lutyen's design of the capital of British India in New Delhi was the magnificient All India War Memorial on Rajpath, right in line with the imposing Viceroy’s Lodge. This memorial was a tribute paid by the colonizing power to approximately 84,000 Indian soldiers who had fought for the Empire and laid down their lives during Word War I and the Afghan Wars.

This War Memorial is now very inappropriately called India Gate, a name which almost completely obliterates the noble sentiment that the British had displayed in a befitting and grand manner. The memorial is 39.62 meters high and 27.43 meters wide. The Regimental Number and name of each soldier who died is inscribed on each brick of this imposing monument, which tells a tale of the battles fought in France, Flanders, Mesopotamia, Iran, East Africa, Gallipoli and the North West Frontier during the Third Afghan War.

Sixty years on after Independence, India has yet to find a place to similarly honour its own soldiers who have laid down their lives for their motherland. All that the nation has done so far is to place a rifle upside down with a helmet on top of it, right under the arch of the British War Memorial to ‘honour’ the Unknown Soldier of Free India! There is no space available or necessity felt by successive Indian governments to give names to the thousands of soldiers who have been martyred since Independence.

From each brick of the monument, spirits of the soldiers who had died fighting for the Empire must surely be mocking those who died fighting for their own country as they cower apologetically under the arch in total anonymity. If they could, they would shame each politician and bureaucrat who has contributed his bit in ensuring this humiliation of the heroes who died for them too. Come to think of it, how can anyone visit present day India Gate and come back unashamed at what Indian rulers have done?

This grand and imposing All India War Memorial was constructed before the Second World War. Had the British not left almost immediately after words, would they not have constructed another befitting and even more imposing memorial for the Indian soldiers who died fighting for them during that Great War? Where do you think they would have done it? Look at the two maps below and you will find only one location which they would have chosen to erect a monument befitting those who gave their today for their colonial masters. That leads us logically to the next and vital question: Which is the only place in this area where Independent India can show its equally befitting and visible gratitude to the thousands of soldiers who have already laid down their lives and the many who will in future conflicts that will inevitably take place over time?

Since the Englishmen had to leave in a hurry and Britain was reduced to its original size in the aftermath of the War, did they forget to honour the millions of natives who had fought for the Empire and those who were killed or reported missing in action? Much to the shame of our still unmoved rulers, the British remembered. In 2002, a full 55 years after India’s Independence, they constructed Memorial Gates on the Constitution Hill near Hyde Park in London in their memory. No less a person than the Queen inaugurated the monument.

It is not that no one in free India has thought of constructing a National War Memorial (NWM). The proposal was first mooted in the sixties after the Indo-China War of 1962, although the thought should have occurred to our new masters in 1948 itself when the Indian Armed forces saved Kashmir for the country. But, four wars and the Kargil conflict later, the country has yet to find a respectable home to honour by name every single soldier who has died fighting for it.

What will it take to shame our bureaucrats and politicians who have stonewalled all efforts to construct a NWM in the Rajpath area, even though they pass by the All India War Memorial which mocks them almost every single day? What will it take to awaken their national pride and dignity so that they can stop belittling the sacrifices of soldiers in a manner that has possibly no parallel in the world? Will our bureaucrats ever stop stooping to the level of humiliating even dead soldiers in their never ending turf wars designed to lower the dignity and standing of serving soldiers, only to ceaselessly assert their own little deserved but ruthlessly pursued positional supremacy?

As for the military hierarchy, they cannot get away by pleading that for 60 years that they have been helpless. They should know that the nation respects soldiers and, if educated properly, public opinion can force the unmoving machinery of the government to see light. But, having been dyed almost wholly in the mindsets of “cyclists”, as Peter Drucker described those who “kick below and bend above,” perhaps it is too much to expect a straightening of the spine from them after almost a lifetime of keeping it horizontal.

That is perhaps why the “conceptual designs” for the NWM prepared by the Army reflect a diffidence and an inability to think big, even with the Memorial built by the British literally slapping not only them but all Indians with its dominating presence. The latest design is a landscape-type memorial around the canopy located almost at the foot of India Gate, with retaining walls for inscribing the names of martyred soldiers. Even here, there is no consensus over the height of these walls and proper traffic management plan for the area.

To my mind, and I am sure a vast majority of Indians will agree with me, making such an insignificant memorial around a canopy built by the British for a statue of their own king is even more demeaning than putting a butt on top of a rifle in the bowels of the British War Memorial now called something it never ever was.

That brings me back to the question I had asked earlier. Even a cursory study of the layout of the area between the Rashtrapati Bhawan and the end of the Rajpath or Central Vista leads to the conclusion that there is only one place where the British would have put up a memorial grander than the India Gate to honour Indian soldiers who died during the Second World War. Yes, that is the place where the National Stadium, an arena for playing hockey stands today.

A sports stadium at one end of the Rajpath, with the Supreme Court and Delhi High Court on either side of it, looking at the Rashtrapati Bhawan at the other end? Is not there something conceptually completely wrong here? Is it not destroying the unity of the whole, majestic layout, something which Lutyen would have found revolting, had he lived to see it? Would the British have ever even thought of ruining the flow of the majestic and dominating architecture representing the power and grandeur of the state by constructing a sports stadium at one end?

Look at the map above where River Yamuna can be seen. After Independence, the Rajpath could easily have been extended in the same straight line right up to the banks of the river. Was that not the perfect place to have had the Samadhi of the Father of the Nation, Mahatma Gandhi, rather than where it is now with little logic? What better than having the Mahatma at one end of the power corridor, symbolically keeping a moral watch on the rulers of the country? If only someone had applied his mind in the manner that the British planners had earlier done, we would have had an awesome and inspiring view of the capital of the country both from the Yamuna as well as from Raisina Hill.

I do not know whether a Samadhi can be relocated. If it can, it should be shifted as I have visualized. Otherwise, a suitable Gandhi Smarak can be built there. Yes, the elevated Railway lines coming in the alignment will need to be shifted and moved under the road leading to the Samadhi/Smarak. Perhaps Pragati Maidan will also need to be shifted elsewhere. All that may cost a lot. But when residents of ‘elite’ colonies have no qualms over creating an additional burden of Rs 800 crores on the tax payer so that the Metro goes underground where they live, any amount spent on such a project of national significance cannot be questioned.

In the sixty years since Independence, Delhi, a city littered with architectural masterpieces from previous eras, can only boast of two worthy additions: The Bahai Lotus Temple and the Swaminarayan Akshardham Temple. Notice that both these marvelous structures have been built by religious bodies from donations made by ordinary people. The government which had appropriated the task of developing the city in the sixties has contributed only ugly government buildings, match box type DDA flats and hundreds of unauthorized colonies which have all made the skyline forgettable. Pride and imagination have been conspicuous by their absence in the corridors of the powers that have planned as well as watched this relentless assault on the capital of India. Things are beginning to change now but the damage already done will take a lot to be undone, if at all it is.

A start can be made from the long stretch of real estate which represents the seat of power of the nation.

An Indian War Memorial where National stadium stands now and Gandhi’s Samadhi/Smarak on the banks of the Yamuna should be constructed as I have already outlined above. The architecture of these should not only be in harmony with what the British left behind but should add a dimension well above that level of excellence as a visible symbol of a proud India ready to sit on the table of the great nations of the world.

Let not the sentimentalism of the fact that Nehru got the National Stadium constructed where it should never have been cloud our greater vision. Hockey can be played anywhere else but our martyrs have to be honoured visibly and befittingly only in that long corridor where the British built the most imposing and inspiring monument for those who died for them.






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Readers may also read: Remembering India's unknown soldier