India's war memorial - Seal the deal - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 22 March 2010

India's war memorial - Seal the deal

The India Gate, in Delhi, a 1921 memorial to Indian soldiers killed in World War I, currently houses the Amar Jawan Jyoti, India's national war memorial

The Rezangla feature, which dominates the approach to Chushul, was defended to the end by 112 men of 13 Kumaon against a Chinese advance in 1962. This memorial to those brave men, led by Major Shaitan Singh, Param Vir Chakra, was built near Rezangla by 13 Kumaon.

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 23rd March 2010

Amongst the many issues that scar relations between India’s military and its civilian overseers — pay scales and pensions; the failure to buy adequate weaponry; and the military’s marginalisation in framing security policy, to name a few — the most easily resolved is the military’s longstanding demand for a national war memorial to honour the 20,000 soldiers, sailors and airmen who have sacrificed their lives while defending independent India. A broad section of the urban public echoes this plea.

The demand is for a prominent memorial on New Delhi’s Central Vista, which can be visited freely by the Indian public, and where wreathes can be offered by national leaders on occasions like the Republic Day, and by visiting foreign dignitaries who choose to do so. The current memorial, the Amar Jawan Jyoti, is merely an add-on to the India Gate, an imposing 42-metre high British structure, built in 1921, to honour the 90,000 Indian soldiers who died in the First World War.

The irony is evident: the British exalted the memory of Indians who died for the empire; but India finds it bothersome to suitably commemorate those who fell in service of the republic.

Anyone who has travelled along India’s borders with China and Pakistan cannot have missed the lonely memorials at the places where Indian troops fought and died. Amongst the most stirring is the stark monument to Major Shaitan Singh and his 111 Kumaoni soldiers who battled to the last, holding up a major Chinese advance on the desolate, windswept plateau of Chushul. This Indian hero, a winner of the Param Vir Chakra, is honoured only in that unvisited war memorial near Chushul. No national memorial is inscribed with the name of Major Shaitan Singh.

The proposal for a “National War Memorial”, as I accidentally discovered in the Assam state archives in Guwahati, predates independent India. A confidential memo, issued on March 3, 1945, from the War Department in New Delhi (in File No. 110-C/45, entitled “Indian National War Memorial”, in the Governor’s Secretariat, Confidential Branch) declares that the Government of India (GoI) has been examining “the question of the form that an Indian National War Memorial should take”. The memo orders that “the establishment of a Military Academy on the lines of the United States Military Academy at West Point for the education and basic training together of future officers of the Royal Indian Navy, the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force would be the most suitable form for the memorial to take”.

In short, New Delhi proposed that what was to become the famous National Defence Academy (NDA), which is still the bedrock of Indian officer training, would also serve as India’s National War Memorial.

The British government of India further proposed that “funds for the academy would be provided by public subscription and supplemented by the state”. It urged all provincial governments (as state governments were then called) to support the scheme, establish scholarships, encourage the public to contribute, and to not set up any other war memorials so that the support of the public “may be concentrated on the all-India (war memorial)”.

Shortly afterwards, as the Second World War hurtled towards its denouement in Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the War Department in New Delhi directed (vide memo No. F.65/45/W.1, dated June 15, 1945) that the construction of the academy be financed from a gift of 100,000 pounds, received from the Government of Sudan in gratitude for the Indian Army’s role in freeing Sudan from Italian occupation.

An Indian National War Memorial Working Committee was quickly constituted, which sent out a questionnaire to the provinces asking for their views on a range of subjects, including the setting up of feeder schools for the proposed academy-cum-war memorial. The questionnaire asked, keeping in mind the “urgent need in India for leaders in all walks of life, including the fighting services”, should “practical steps not be taken to meet the requirement of the immediate future by the establishment of a certain number of residential high schools”.

Today, 65 years later, the military community, especially officers from the NDA, will recognise that these proposals have been implemented in full. The Sudan Block, a magnificent basalt and granite structure, topped with a Jodhpur red sandstone dome, is the central edifice around which the academy stands. Generations of cadets, including this columnist, have dozed restfully through lectures in the Sudan Block’s cool classrooms. Many of those cadets entered the NDA from 19 Sainik Schools across the country, the network of “feeder schools” proposed in 1945.

Lost along the way, fortuitously, is the proposal for the NDA to constitute India’s National War Memorial. A training academy is a living organism that shapes the leaders of tomorrow; bursting with life, it is ill-suited to be a sombre memorial.

Today, with the government unwilling to concede the space for a memorial on New Delhi’s Central Vista, Karnataka MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar, has suggested a Vietnam Wall-style memorial, inscribed with the names of India’s fallen soldiers, on a 50-60 acre site alongside Mahatma Gandhi’s memorial at Rajghat. The design, which Chandrasekhar submitted to the prime minister last week, includes an eternal flame, a 24x7 ceremonial military guard, a memorial wall, a martyrs’ museum, and large, landscaped areas that would allow schoolchildren and other visitors a pleasant day at the memorial. If the army wants the country to know about and to remember its sacrifices, this is the way to do it.


  1. Wonderful post as usual. Public memory is indeed short and hence we very easily forget the soldier's sacrifice. Else the war memorial would have been the occupant of dusty and old files for decades. And ofcourse, for the politicians, this has neither votebank benefit nor "economic" benefit whatsoever.

  2. This is a stirring article Ajaiji. It brings a tear to my eyes as I look at the numbers. Each digit is a life. A life that sacrificed itself for the sake of others. A life that sacrificed itself for an ideal. A life that was exchanged for the hope of freedom. If the bloody politicians and fellow countrymen cannot transcend the limitations of petty vote bank politics,all that these men stood for will be in vain. How do we earn the respect of the nations of the world, if we dont honour our heroes. This is NATIONAL SHAME. Ideally, it should have been the grandest monuments on Indian soil. But, sadly this is reduced to fleeting tears that fill up ones eyes.

  3. Ajai,
    although there is no National War Memorial, Maharashtra does have its own war memorial in Pune. It was built completely with public donations from industries and citizens was built to honor the sailors, airmen and soldiers from Maharashtra who laid donn their life for the country.
    If the politicians in Delhi are not willing to construct a National War Memorial, its time the citizens follow MAharashtra's example and build a memorial from public donationa.

  4. Here is a link for the National War Memorial in Pune

  5. I cannot believe that someone like Mayawati can get away spending Hundreds of Crores to build an almost useless park while every government since Independence have not yet built a National Memorial for an organization whose people defend this country day in and day out. It's time for someone to do the right thing.

  6. is there a reason for the governments unwillingness to allot space for the memorial? I find it rather odd that a project of low complexity such as this hasnt been implemented for such a long time. Unless memorials in Delhi is reserved for only the deceased of our grand old ruling family.

  7. All the places around Delhi is strictly reserved for the Nehru family graveyard. How dare you write such blasphemous post against our royal highness?

    Don't you know that Nehru family's death is a tragedy but
    death of 20,000 soldiers is just a statistic.

  8. A Different Logic

    1. 'Amar Jawan Jyoti' is dominantly placed and treated as National War Memorial by the Indian Govt, solemn for all national ceremonies. Can there be more suitable a place? Why decisions of 20s/40s can’t be reinforced or reviewed by the Govt. of Indep India? We need to rationalise this.In any case, most of the States have their War Memorials.

    2. 'National War Museum' too is pending. How many Regiments would part with their 'prime souvenirs' to be displayed in the Museum as and when set by the Govt denuding their Centre(s), Offices Messes, Offices, HQ, etc. How would it look w/o the 'prime souvenirs'

    We need to think afresh.


  9. Such a stark reminder of India... alas left me questioning myself and tears of shame in my eyes... Is this the India we love that has forgotten to honour its beloved who sacrificed their lives for her.
    Its time that we honour and respect the men who died for our beloved motherland in form of a monument.

  10. I would like to exchange links with your site
    Is this possible?


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