Amar Jawan Jyoti: Symbolism, respect can't be forced, it evolves over time; new will never take place of old

While it takes thousands of years to build tradition, it often takes just a few minutes to destroy it, former Navy chief writes with a sense of sadness and loss over the 'merging' of Amar Jawan Jyoti

Amar Jawan Jyoti: Symbolism, respect can't be forced, it evolves over time; new will never take place of old

Admiral L Ramdas

I grew up in Delhi as a young boy – and saw at first hand, the trauma of Partition, before I joined the newly created Joint Services Wing in Dehra Dun in 1949.

I lived a ten minute walk away from the imposing Lutyens structure – India Gate. And my friends and I would gather there and gaze admiringly at the monument which towered over the open green spaces. It also left us with sobering thoughts about the nature of war as we learned about the large numbers of our people who lost their lives in both the World Wars.

So the first point to bear in mind, is that India Gate itself was conceptualised as a War Memorial. Whether it was created by our colonial rulers to commemorate those who died in Afghan Wars and World War I and II – in theatres across the world – the bulk of those who laid down their lives were soldiers from India. It bore testimony to the courage and valour of our warriors who carried out their duty according to the regimes whose uniforms they wore and to whom they owed allegiance.

Many years later, after the successful completion of the 1971 war with Pakistan and the creation of Bangladesh, leaders of that time decided to add an important dimension to the existing memorial, by creating the Amar Jawan Jyoti – or the eternal flame. India Gate was thus treated as an integral part of the memorial to soldiers – known and unknown.

For fifty years now – every Prime Minister and many dignitaries, have paid tributes and homage at the monument which honours those “sons of the soil” who have died in the various wars, great and small. India Gate and the memory of the unknown soldier have gradually become an organic and intrinsic part of the public memory and feeling of reverence and respect. It was a time honoured tradition that the Prime Minister would lay a wreath at the Amar Jawan Jyoti before the parade on Republic Day.

The fact that a National War Memorial has been constructed in 2019, is commendable. We have visited this aesthetically designed structure - and were impressed by its execution.

However it is like a new kid on the block – it will take time to become a part of a familiar and accessible space where all people are welcomed and free to wander as indeed they have done since 1931 when India Gate was completed.

War memorials are by definition military-oriented in their design and purpose. This new memorial will also gain stature over time. But it cannot be done through decree. Although a former Army Chief has gone on record to say that this is a purely military matter and should be treated as such without “politicising” the issue. Clearly, such a decision is not taken lightly, is not announced just 24 hours prior to the implementation, that too without the presence of the Chiefs of the three Services at the ceremony of the “merger” of the flames.

It would also be appropriate to add here that when the National War Memorial was inaugurated in 2019, weeks before the parliamentary elections that year, senior military officers went on record to stress that Amar Jawan Jyoti “will continue to be there”.

“A new flame will come up at the National War Memorial, but the eternal flame at Amar Jawan Jyoti will stay. We have inherited that flame,” the then Chief of Integrated Defence Staff Lt Gen P S Rajeshwar had said.

The Indian Army’s Deputy Chief, Lt Gen P J S Pannu, stressed that the “Amar Jawan Jyoti is an inseparable part of our history. So much emotion is attached to it. And, it is located beneath the India Gate which itself is a war memorial."

Apart from this apparent U Turn, it was the manner in which the decision was taken that has been responsible for the present outcry. Such a major decision does not get taken overnight, and announced just 24 hours before it is implemented. There is therefore reason to question whether in fact this decision was taken after due diligence after consultation with all concerned.

So one might well ask, why was this decision taken, at this point, “to extinguish” the one and “merge” it with the other? Lets be honest, the use of the phrase “to merge” – is just semantics!

There was a symbolism and meaning which cannot be dictated or forced but must evolve over time and with due process. Not only did the public come to love the ceremonial associated with the change of guards and placing of wreaths at Amar Jawan Jyothi – the environs around India Gate also lent themselves to a variety of public expressions of paying tribute, expressing grief (Nirbhaya and other such events) and showing solidarity by lighting candles in the beautiful and accessible open spaces around India Gate.

I have personally laid a wreath and paid my respects at the Amar Jawan Jyoti before I took over as Chief of the Naval Staff in November 1990. For my colleagues in the Army, this was a place where many regiments would be honoured on special days.

This is how our Republic slowly assimilated that culture of respecting all those who laid down their lives – not for a religion, a colonial power, or a monarch – but for the land of their forefathers and mothers over centuries.

These are the lessons we need to teach and learn. Traditions are built over hundreds of years – be they Hindu, Islamic, Sikh, Moghul, British, or Indian. We have also seen that while it takes thousands of years to build tradition it often takes just a few minutes to destroy it. Be it a Masjid, Church, or Temple, or the extinguishing of a flame that was sacred for all that it symbolised in the fifty years of its existence. For all the pomp and glory of the ceremonial igniting of the torch and marching it to the new circle of light or flame, the new will never take the place of the old – nor be able to match the sanctity of the love, emotion, sense of loss, of victory , of sacrifice and patriotism that had been invested into the Amar Jawan Jyoti at the India Gate….

Finally in closing, I cannot help but reflect, that this decision to ‘extinguish’ or ‘merge’ the flame, could not have come at a worse time.

Republic Day January 26, and Martyrs Day on January 30th are around the corner. This was a time to reassure the nation of the sanctity of its traditions, the sacredness of the Constitution, and to send out a clear message to all our people, that the government will care for the well being and security of everyone, especially our minorities, who have been under attack. Withdrawing the time honoured ‘Abide With Me’ which was Gandhiji’s favourite hymn, from the Beating Retreat Ceremony, is adding insult to injury.

It is, above all, this sense of sadness and loss that I want to share through your pages today.

(Views are personal)

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