“Should not there be a war memorial? I feel some good things have been left for me to do.” This was Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s sentiment—four months before he rode to power in a wave election of hope–at a function to mark the golden jubilee of Lata Mangeshkar’s immortal number, ‘Aye mere watan ke logo.’
For sixty seven years, India has not been able to find space in heart and land to honour its soldiers who laid down their lives for their motherland after Independence. All that our uncaring politicians and military-hating bureaucrats have allowed—for Free India’s Unknown Soldier—is a small platform, with a rifle and helmet on top of it, in the bowels of the towering War Memorial built by the British for Indians who gave their today for the tomorrow of their colonial masters.
For years, successive Army Chiefs have implored successive governments, but the powers that lord over Independent India have refused to give approval for even a pathetically small—demeaning actually, architectural prowess of Charles Correa notwithstanding–landscape-
The grateful British had their priorities absolutely right, even when it came to native soldiers.
To our leaders, on the other hand, soldiers matter less than even ordinary government employees; they belong to a remote, no-vote-power India, and do no favour to anyone by doing their paid-for-duty of dying for their country. The only ones who deserve vast memorials and naming of every second stone and scheme after them are political leaders.
Adding insult to injury, we have Chief Ministers like Sheila Dikshit who oppose even a small war memorial in the vicinity of the massive British War Memorial on the unbelievable ground that it is the only popular hangout place for people, and that an Indian war memorial would affect its ambience. If they could have their way—such is the feeling among angry men in uniform and patriotic citizens—our leaders would wish the military away.
Fortunately, Prime Minister Narendra Modi—an inspirational leader rooted and connected to the India beyond Lutyens’ Delhi–realises that the nation has done grave injustice to its martyred soldiers. That is why he has expressed a desire to build a National War Memorial in Delhi: the nation has an obligation to show its gratitude to them and give them the dignity they earned with their blood.
No one can accuse Narendra Modi of being diffident or of thinking small. So it goes without saying that he would expect such a national memorial to be more imposing—not to forget motivating–than the one the British built in Delhi.
That leads us to the logical question: where should such an inspiring War Memorial complex be located?
Central to Edwin Lutyens’ design of the capital of British India was the magnificent All India War Memorial, right in line with the imposing Viceroy’s Lodge, now Rashtrapati Bhawan. This memorial was a tribute paid by the colonizing power to approximately 84,000 Indian soldiers who had fought for the Empire and laid down their lives during Word War I and the Afghan Wars. The Regimental Number and name of each soldier who died is inscribed on each brick of this imposing monument, which tells a tale of the battles fought in France, Flanders, Mesopotamia, Iran, East Africa, Gallipoli and the North West Frontier during the Third Afghan War.
This grand All India War Memorial–wrongly called India Gate–was constructed before the Second World War. Had the British not left almost immediately afterwards, they would undoubtedly have constructed an even more imposing memorial for the Indian soldiers who died fighting for them during that Great War. A cursory study of the layout of the area between the Rashtrapati Bhawan and the end of the Rajpath leads to the conclusion that there is only one place where the British would have sited a memorial grander than “India Gate”. Yes, that is the place where the National Stadium, an arena for playing hockey, stands today.
A sports stadium at one end of the Rajpath– Supreme Court and Delhi High Court on either side–looking at the Rashtrapati Bhawan at the other end? Is not there something conceptually completely wrong here? Is it not destroying the unity of the whole, majestic layout and architecture, something which Lutyens would have found revolting, something which manifestly remains beyond the grasp of our leaders?
Sixty seven years after Independence, Delhi, a city littered with architectural masterpieces from previous eras, can only boast of two worthy additions: the Bahai Lotus Temple and the Swaminarayan Akshardham Temple. Notice that both these marvellous structures have been built by religious bodies from donations made by ordinary people. The government which had appropriated the task of developing the city in the sixties, has contributed only ugly government buildings, match box type DDA flats and hundreds of unauthorized colonies which have all made the skyline forgettable. Pride and imagination have been conspicuous by their absence in the politicians and bureaucrats who have planned as well as watched this assault of unthinking mediocrity, if not worse, on the capital of India.
Now that the Prime Minister has taken it upon himself to get an honourable War Memorial built, this writer is of the humble view that there cannot be a better location for it—ideal even for the globally telecast wreath laying by the PM on 26 January–than where the National stadium stands today, at one end of Delhi’s power corridor. Also, its architecture should not only be in harmony with what the British left behind, but should add an Indian dimension well above that level of excellence, so that it stands out as an iconic symbol of a proud, resurgent India ready to take its place at the table of the great nations of the world.
Hockey can be played anywhere else, but our martyrs will best be remembered visibly and most befittingly in that long corridor where the British built a magnificent monument for soldiers who died for them. Will the sentimentalism that it was Jawaharlal Nehru who got that hockey stadium constructed–where it should never have been–prevail? Or will, if he likes the idea, our status quo-challenging and visionary PM have his way?