Injustice to ‘Eternal Flame’

Kulandai Yesu Raja Kulandai Yesu Raja
31 Jan 2022

"If you want to kill your dog, accuse him of having rabies", so goes a French saying. The dog may have any number of qualities or plus points, but if its existence does not fit in with our scheme of things, it has to be put to rest forever and in a well-thought-out manner. 

The scheme of "merging" the iconic Amar Jawan Jyoti at India Gate into the new flame created at the National War Memorial, set up nearby in 2019, should be seen against this backdrop.

All explanations given to justify the BJP-led government's decision do not appear to be as convincing as the one that calls for the continuation of Amar Jawan Jyoti, conceptualised after India's victory over Pakistan in the 1971 war that led to the birth of Bangladesh. 

The Jyoti had become an inseparable part of the nation's emotional psyche; but it was coming in the way of the National War Memorial as it was not getting the attention the government expected its brainchild to attract. The government must have been feeling frustrated as the new war memorial, inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, was proving to be just an attachment to what was built when Congress stalwart Indira Gandhi was in power in 1972. This could not be acceptable to the present government and, therefore, the roadblock had to be removed.

Those who understand that the BJP-led government takes almost all measures in accordance with the party's larger agenda will immediately reject the explanation that once the National War Memorial was built, our political and military leaders and foreign dignitaries would pay their tributes to the fallen soldiers at this memorial, ignoring Amar Jawan Jyoti. This, the change-seeking people believed, provided proof that there was no need for having two 'eternal' flames.

The official stand also is that the 'eternal' flame at the new National War Memorial is a true tribute to those who laid down their lives for the cause of defending the country's frontiers. This, it is argued, cannot be said about Amar Jawan Jyoti, which came up only to pay tributes to the martyrs of the 1971 war. Moreover, their names are also not mentioned for the visitors to know who they were and what their background was. But the truth is that the government wanted to do away with something which had a Congress label attached to it.

The first national war memorial, today's India Gate, was built in 1931 during the British rule. Its construction began in 1921, but it was inaugurated after 10 years. It was then called All-India War Memorial which later got a new name -- India Gate. It was erected as a memorial to over 90,000 Indian soldiers and officers of the then British Indian Army who got martyred during many military campaigns and wars like World War I. The monument has the names of over 13,000 soldiers with the inscription, "TO THE DEAD OF THE INDIAN ARMIES WHO FELL AND ARE HONOURED IN FRANCE AND FLANDERS, MESOPOTAMIA AND PERSIA, EAST-AFRICA, GALLIPOLI AND ELSEWHERE IN THE NEAR AND THE FAR-EAST AND IN SACRED MEMORY ALSO OF THOSE WHOSE NAMES ARE HERE RECORDED AND WHO FELL IN INDIA OR THE NORTH-WEST FRONTIER AND DURING THE THIRD AFGHAN WAR.”

Out of respect to the soldiers who sacrificed their lives for the cause of the country before the 1971 war, Amar Jawan Jyoti was installed underneath with a rifle in the reverse position and a military helmet over it. 

But India Gate and all that is inscribed on it is considered a British legacy, reminding the country of its colonial past. It so far remains a part of the Central Vista, but, as the argument of the changers goes, no memorial can acquire the position of the new National War Memorial.

No one can contest this argument so long as India Gate continues to be treated as it has been done since Independence. The problem arises when politics is allowed to play a role in matters which need to be viewed keeping the ruling party's interests aside.

Reports say that officials had explained in 2019 when the National War Memorial was inaugurated by Modi that both flames would continue to be there forever. Then how the merger idea got precedence over the thought of keeping both memorial flames intact remains a mystery.

As senior Congress leader Shashi Tharoor reportedly said, "You can't snuff out Amar Jawan Jyoti just because you've got another flame at National War Memorial. The flame is meant to be 'Amar'; it's meant to be immortal and eternal.”

The argument in favour of keeping Amar Jawan Jyoti intact has its own sound logic. The 1971 India-Pakistan war that resulted in the birth of Bangladesh has special significance as India's armed forces changed the political geography of South Asia, and forever. The soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice in that military conflict needed to be remembered differently. That would be possible only if Amar Jawan Jyoti continued to be where it was.

Ruling politicians come and go, but what comes into being in honour of our heroes associated with the country's armed forces should never be altered, keeping in view the sentiments attached. It appears the BJP-led government's intentions are not pious. Perhaps to silence the critics of the "snuffing out" of Amar Jawan Jyoti as also to expand the BJP's following in West Bengal, the Prime Minister inaugurated at India Gate a hologram statue of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, one of the stalwarts of India's freedom movement, on the occasion of his 125th birth anniversary on January 23. At the same time, he also declared that the hologram would be replaced by a "grand statue" of the great leader, having his roots in Bengal, whenever it is ready.

What is the message the government intends to convey? Merely installing a statue of Netaji Bose cannot be accepted as doing justice to a leader well known for the secular principles he stood for.

To quote Tharoor again, "Netaji was a man of profound secularism; his Azad Hind Fauj had people of every faith -- Hindus, Muslims, Christians and Sikhs -- who served side by side with Netaji in positions of honour and trust. The officer with him when his plane crashed was a Muslim, his colleague was a Christian... This is the kind of ethos Netaji represents."

There is another development that raises a question mark over the intentions of the government. Though not surprising, it dropped an English hymn, "Abide with me...", a favourite of Mahatma Gandhi, from the list of tunes played by the Massed Bands of the security forces during the Beating Retreat occasion, marking the end of the Republic Day celebrations.  It is a different matter that the hymn got replaced by a patriotic song, "Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon..."

This was done in 2020 also, but the tune related to the hymn got restored following the criticism of the government's decision through social media platforms. Even if the same thing happens again, the government cannot escape the allegation that it always looks for an opportunity to change history in accordance with the ruling party's narrow thinking.

(The writer, a Delhi-based political columnist, is a former Deputy Editor of The Tribune, Chandigarh.)

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