No place to lay the wreath
This Republic Day, I watched the Indian high commissioner ceremonially lay a wreath at the impressive Indian Peace-Keeping Force war memorial in Colombo. Sri Lankan Navy buglers suitably participated in the solemn function.
The names of 1,000 Indian soldiers killed in Sri Lanka are inscribed in golden letters on black granite at the IPKF memorial. I knew some of the officers whose names are inscribed there. They made the supreme sacrifice at the altar of the folly of our political leadership. This war was not in defence of our nation nor for promoting our national interests.
Irrespective of any faulty decision of the political leadership, the soldier acting on it in his line of duty and making the supreme sacrifice is a national hero and his memory must be honoured. The IPKF contingent returning from Sri Lanka faced hostile demonstration and black flags in their home country when they landed in Tamil Nadu.
J.R. Jayawardene, the late President of Sri Lanka, had asked for Indian help in dealing with the LTTE and that set a chain of events in which the Indian Army was fighting the Tamil Tigers. President Ranasinghe Premadasa wanted the IPKF to quit Sri Lanka and the IPKF was withdrawn. In 1993, he invited India to put up an IPKF war memorial in Colombo for which he earmarked a site. Little later he was assassinated by the Tamil Tigers. The IPKF memorial was completed in 2010. The memorial for Sri Lankan soldiers killed in the war against Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam is not far from this site.
For their soldiers who made the supreme sacrifice for their country, the US has Arlington in Washington, the UK has the Cenotaph in London, France has the Arc de Triumph in Paris and in our neighbourhood, Bangladesh has one in Dhaka and Sri Lanka has a memorial in Colombo.
The British not only included the Indian soldiers in their war memorial in London, but also memorials near battlefields in countries like France, Italy and Egypt. When the capital of India was shifted to New Delhi, they built India Gate in the heart of Lutyens’ New Delhi to honour the memory of Indian soldiers killed in the Third Afghan War and the First World War. They quit India soon after. But they built war memorials for the soldiers who laid down their lives near the battlefields at Kohima and Imphal. The former is perhaps the prettiest war memorial in the world. It is on a terraced well-maintained lawn with names of soldiers along with their religious symbols inscribed on small brass tablets in rows in lush green grass. The entrance has an arch with the following touching words inscribed on it: “When you go back home tell them of us, for their tomorrow we gave our today.” Over 80,000 Indian soldiers have died in various wars we have fought since Independence. There is no National War Memorial for them in New Delhi. The need for a National War Memorial for soldiers, sailors and airmen has been under examination for over half a century, but nothing has materialised so far thanks to bureaucratic hassles and political indecisiveness. As deputy adjutant-general in early Seventies and, five years later, as adjutant-general in late Seventies, I was closely associated with the National War Memorial project at a prime place in the heart of the capital, where both our and foreign dignitaries could place wreaths.
After our great victory in the Indo-Pak war of December 1971, Indira Gandhi desired to lay a wreath at a memorial for our martyrs of that war. We rigged up a temporary war memorial under India Gate with a rectangular platform with a soldier’s rifle embedded in it upside down and steel helmet above the butt. An eternal flame was also put up on the top of India Gate. This arrangement has continued to this day pending construction of a proper war memorial. This strengthened our case for a proper national War Memorial at that site. After a quarter of a century, we got government approval in principle for a national war memorial to be constructed there.
A striking design in the middle of the roundabout was approved by the Cabinet in 2009. Work has not started as Sheila Dikshit, the then chief minister, raised objection saying that the people of New Delhi will be denied a popular picnic spot. There are many parks nearby, like the Lodhi Gardens, open space in Purana Qila and the huge Jawaharlal Nehru Park. In fact, there is a valid case to stop picnic near India Gate as picnickers litter the area.
Delhi chief minister Arvind Kejriwal has made many populist promises which seem almost impossible to implement. Among these is to demolish bungalows with large compounds in Lutyens’ Delhi and put up high-rise apartments for the poor. He may well come up with the idea of having high-rise apartments near India Gate and shelve the national war memorial project.
We have a lame duck government at the Centre, which has always shown a marked inability to take decisions. In view of all this we may find that the national war memorial project may remain in cold storage. However, if our parliamentary elections throw up a strong Prime Minister with a reputation and proven record of an achiever, someone who gets things done and has consideration for the military, a national war memorial can come up soon.
The writer, a retired lieutenant-general, was Vice-Chief of Army Staff and has served as governor of Assam and Jammu and Kashmir more