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….