Against forgetting

The military services have long been pressing for a national war memorial that would honour the soldiers who died for independent India, which would include all the major wars, as well as the conflicts in Kashmir and the Northeast. This August, a group of ministers and the three service chiefs had agreed that the memorial be established at India Gate, which now holds the tomb of the unknown soldier. Since then, Delhi Chief Minister Sheila Dikshit and several conservationists have opposed the plan, saying that this memorial and all the attendant security at India Gate would change the character of the historical space, and deprive the public of a valuable city commons. Defence Minister A.K. Antony is set on India Gate, and others have weighed in to say that this memorial should be the first priority, and to object, on any ground, does disservice to the sacrifice of those who laid down their lives for the country.

There is virtual unanimity, however, on the need for a monument dedicated to our servicemen. The government and military establishment should consider what they want to convey with this proposed monument and what they want to leave implicit, to allow citizens to bring their own meanings to the place. War memorials have changed considerably over the years. Once dedicated to national glory, the lone warrior on a horse, they now evoke sacrifice, commemorate the many heroic dead. Does India want to honour its soldiers in an atmosphere of official pomp, under an arch of imperial triumph? Or does it want a more contemplative space, one where memories of the dead soldiers truly become part of the national narrative?

A space on the banks of the Yamuna may be the perfect location, flanked by the memorials to other national heroes, including that warrior of peace, Mahatma Gandhi. An inspiring example is Maya Lin's tribute to the Vietnam dead, in Washington D.C. She eschewed larger-than-life structures, and created a low wall inscribed with the names of those who fell, in chronological order. People traced these names, left mementos and artifacts, made it a site of true remembering. A site on the Yamuna riverfront could also be an open, encouraging space that draws thousands of visitors, lets them linger, and think about the enormous patriotism that drove the lives of these soldiers, and the sorrow of their deaths.

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