India Gate: Let’s go beyond 'flaming' controversies
A National War Memorial is befitting to an independent country, which we became 75 years ago. India Gate, on the other hand, is an imperial war memorial.
First of all, it is high time that we move beyond the somewhat over-charged, if not unnecessary, controversy over the shifting of the “Amar Jawan Jyoti” at India Gate. This flame to commemorate the unknown Indian soldier has merged with the eternal fire of our National War Memorial. A National War Memorial is befitting to an independent country, which we became 75 years ago. Prior to that we were a British colony. India Gate, on the other hand, is an imperial war memorial.
The merger of flames, an ancient tradition that is still observed in the Olympic Games, does not mean that the sacrifices of Indian soldiers prior to Independence are to be forgotten. Only that all these commemorations are to be commingled and consolidated in one place officially designated for it, namely the National War Memorial, inaugurated by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in 2019.
India Gate, the memorial to soldiers who died in World War I from 1914–1921, still stands in the same place in the very area to which it gave its name. When we look at it, we remember the one million-plus Indians who fought in the Great War and the 90,000 who gave their lives. They fought in Normandy, Flanders, Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Turkey and elsewhere. Of these, the names of 13,300, British officers and men, are inscribed at the monument. The arch, designed and built in by Edwin Lutyens in 1921, was unveiled 10 years later.
In World War II, an even larger number of Indians, some 2.5 million of them, participated in theatres even more far flung, from North Africa to Borneo, from Greece to France, serving not only in the army, but also the navy and the air force. In addition to being soldiers, they were cooks, bearers, carpenters, attendants, drivers, mechanics, boot makers and, of course, “coolies”, manual labourers tasked with the most hazardous jobs on the war front. Let us remember that there is no separate memorial for them.
What about our soldiers who fought or martyred themselves in the many battles that India fought since Independence? It started with the invasion of Kashmir by Pakistani army-backed mercenaries in October 1947, just a couple of months after Independence. This was followed by the 1962 war with China and the 1965 war with Pakistan. Just six years later, we fought another war with Pakistan in 1971, this time helping to liberate Bangladesh. In 1999, India and Pakistan battled it out in another, more limited conflict over Kargil. Besides these, there were skirmishes aplenty on our borders with Pakistan and China, in addition to the disastrous intervention in the Sri Lankan civil war from 1987–1990. I am not even counting our involvement in overseas peacekeeping forces or the ongoing unrest in Kashmir and the Northeast.
A memorial was the need and the ask of several citizens, both present and former servicemen and civilians, for those who fought in all these combats. With the establishment of the National War Memorial, this long-standing demand was, at last, fulfilled. What, then, is the purpose in having two separate commemoratives to our soldiers? What, moreover, is the logic in considering an imperial arch as more significant or sanctified than our own national memorial?
As to the flame, what is wrong if there is only one place where it burns rather than two? Confused and contradictory symbolism only sends the wrong message to future generations. India Gate still endures, grand and secure, so no one need be overly agitated over attempts to erase the past. As to the rewriting of history, it is an ongoing and inevitable process. We cannot freeze it because the shifting narrative does not suit some ideologically or politically.
When the entire colonial vista of New Delhi is undergoing a major structural shift, it is only to be expected that the Amar Jawan Jyoti also be moved and merged with the eternal flame at the National War Memorial. The very same critics and naysayers who attacked the Central Vista makeover are now, quite predictably, also objecting to the shifting of the flame from India Gate.
Now let us come to the canopy. East of India Gate, it once housed the statue of King George V. Since the 1960s, however, it has remained empty, the statue being shifted along with other imperial icons, to Coronation Park. For a while, it was believed that Mahatma Gandhi’s statue would occupy the canopy.
However, that was considered almost sacrilegious, going against Bapu’s staunch anti-imperialism. Gandhi also practised sartorial minimalism, identifying with the poorest of the poor in India. To install him in an imperial canopy would do him and his legacy so much injustice. Instead, the empty canopy was a better reminder that India was no longer colonised.
But putting Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose, in full military uniform, inside the canopy is actually a much better idea. Why? Because he was the only Indian who dared to raise an army to fight and oust the mighty British from his beloved homeland. “Dilli Chalo” was his war cry, when his Azad Hind Fauj or Indian National Army knocked at India’s eastern borders during the last days of World War II. He failed, quite tragically, and then disappeared. Most believed that he died in an air crash and that his ashes are at the Renkoji shrine in Japan.
It is only appropriate that he is posthumously installed in the very capital of India that he wanted to recapture and that this should have been effected on his 125th birth anniversary. He—and all his admirers—will now have the satisfaction of knowing that he has finally reached Delhi.
Makarand R Paranjape
Professor of English at JNU