Remembering with Glory

Narendra Modi inaugurates the National War Memorial in Delhi, February 25
Madhavankutty Pillai has no specialisations whatsoever. He is among the last of the generalists. And also Open chief of bureau, Mumbai  
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Spread over 42 acres, the memorial competes with India Gate in being gloriously and solemnly imposing

THE NATIONAL WAR Memorial was inaugurated on February 25th. The next day, early morning, in retaliation to the suicide-bombing attack at Pulwama, the Indian Air Force targeted terrorist camps in Pakistan, taking hostilities between the two countries to a level not seen in decades. The Pakistanis launched air attacks a day later across the border, escalating the issue. The two countries are now perilously poised with war, even if not necessarily imminent, a greater probability now. Whether one is a peacenik or warmonger, the sequence of events is a testament to the case for the war memorial.

The decades before the World War I were called a time of great peace among warring European imperial empires. If mankind was then thought to have outgrown its warring tribal proclivities, then the illusion was shattered in 1914. A quarter century later World War II proved even more barbarous. The technological, psychological and philosophical leaps of the 21st century had not changed anything in the instincts of societies to mobilise themselves towards an endgame in which tens of millions of lives would lay strewn across ruins. So long as there is going to be war—and there is nothing to show even now any permanent diminution in humanity’s appetite for it—those who participate in it on behalf of nations must be feted and remembered. This is to show gratitude to them and also to keep the emotion that makes people volunteer to be soldiers going strong. A war memorial is public architecture with a purpose.

One reason it took India more than 60 years from the time the idea was first mooted to finally having a national war memorial is its ambivalence towards war. Its ideals are pacifist but in practice violence is intrinsic to its nature. As illustration, consider the freedom movement, touted to be based on non-violence but whose real history is another thing. From Chauri Chaura to the bloodletting of Partition, violence followed step by step with the beginning of the Indian nation-state. After Independence, we have had three formal wars, not counting the Kargil engagement. To remember those who died in wars should have been the natural priority of governments but there was never a social or political impetus for it beyond demands from leaders of the armed forces. This was General VP Malik, chief of army staff during the Kargil war, writing in 2010 in The Tribune: ‘Historically and culturally, despite having to go to war so often for external and internal security, we Indians never take pride in our military achievements or our military heroes. It is a strategic cultural weakness. The military is sidelined as soon as the conflict is over. Till date, there is no national war memorial. Questions are raised whenever the military wishes to celebrate an event to maintain military traditions and to inculcate regimental spirit and esprit de corps. That is also the reason why our long-term defence planning continues to suffer. Kargil heroes and martyrs like those of 1971 and other previous wars are facing the same neglect.’ On February 26th, he tweeted his delight thus, ‘28 Jan 14. Was privileged to attend public function ‘Aye Mere Watan Ke Logo’ with PM candidate N Modi & Lata Ji in Mumbai. Asked N. Modi to make public commitment for construction of War Memorial in Delhi. Glad promise kept. Thank you PM!’

An egregious element in the delay of the war memorial is that it had long been an agreed project. Only inability to execute it made it remain a noting in files. Even the land for it had been earmarked in the vicinity of India Gate, itself a memorial for Indian soldiers who fought in World War I. The location in Lutyens’ zone, at the heart of the Indian Government, was as apt as it could be. Spread over 42 acres, the memorial competes with India Gate in being gloriously and solemnly imposing.

The design was the result of a global competition that Chennai-based WeBe Design Lab won. About the location, its website notes, ‘The Lutyens plan had another garden planned to terminate the axis in the rear side of India Gate which never got built. The proposed memorial is designed as an extension of the India Gate as a huge public open space with garden as a closure point of this Central Axis.’

For the design, it took inspiration from the chakravyuh battle formation, a series of concentric circles entrapping an enemy, alluded to in Indian mythology. ‘The Design intends to create an experience of walking amidst soldiers in a war field in its varied layers. The concept is interpreted as five concentric circles of varied elements as layers with its own functionality and conveying different emotions (protection-bravery-sacrifice), at different levels.’ The circles so imagined are the ‘Circle of Protection or the Rakshak Chakra, followed by Circle of War or the Yudh Path. The next layer is the Circle of Sacrifice or Tyag Chakra, then the Circle of Bravery or Veer Chakra and finally Rebirth or Punarjanam’.

War memorials are not signals of military triumph. The US has a memorial to the Vietnam war it lost. Two years ago the UK unveiled one to soldiers of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, which no one terms a victory for the allied forces now. Among the 25,942 names of martyred Indian soldiers on our memorial are also of those who died in the lost war against China. A nation is an artificial construct existing purely by an agreement of its people. It can be both resilient and fragile for this reason. To those who died to protect this idea, remembering with glory is the least even a peaceful nation can do.