January 27, 2022 - 9:37 am

Amar Jawan Jyoti merged with flame at National War Memorial

    The eternal flame, Amar Jawan Jyoti at India Gate was on Friday extinguished after 50 years and merged with the flame at the adjacent National War Memorial (NWM) in an elaborate military ceremony attended by the top brass of the armed forces, amid political finger pointing over the move aimed at creating a single site for paying homage to India’s fallen heroes and conducting all ceremonial functions.

For years, post-independence, while our wayward media took cursory note of such episodes, politicians studiously ignored the soldiers’ sacrifices in upholding the nation’s integrity. As the adventurism of our neighbours led to conflicts in 1947, 1962, 1965 and 1971, pleas from veterans and citizens that the gallantry and sacrifice of our armed forces deserved recognition in the form of a war memorial continued to fall on deaf political ears. This indifference was in stark contrast with the attitude of other nations. Whether it was the Arlington Memorial in Washington, the Cenotaph in London, the Arc de Triomphe in Paris or the Liberation War memorial in Dhaka, these magnificent monuments acknowledged the sacrifice of their warriors and enabled fellow citizens to pay homage. Finally, in recognition of the sacrifices of our soldiers, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi inaugurated the Amar Jawan Jyoti at India Gate on January26, 1972. Such was the feeling of relief and elation at this belated gesture that most of us overlooked two glaring incongruities.

The Amar Jawan Jyoti was first lit on Republic Day of 1972 in memory of soldiers killed in the Bangladesh Liberation War in December 1971, although it mentions no names. It was placed under the arch of the India Gate, built by the British in 1931 in memory of 90,000 soldiers killed in wars such as the First World War and the Third Anglo-Afghan War. It has the names of fallen soldiers inscribed on it. The Amar Jawan Jyoti has four urns, in one of which the eternal flame burnt constantly. On important days like Republic Day and Independence Day, all four urns would be lit. The four urns are on a marble pedestal with a cenotaph. The words “Amar Jawan” (immortal soldier) are written in gold on all four sides of the cenotaph, which acts as the plinth for a rifle on its barrel capped by the helmet of the “unknown soldier”. These burners constitute what is called the eternal flame, and it had never been allowed to be extinguished since the day it was lit a half century ago. From its inauguration until 2006, the flame was fed by liquified petroleum gas (LPG), one cylinder of which could keep one burner alive for a day and a half. Then, in a project that cost Rs6 lakh at the time, the fuel was changed to piped natural gas, or PNG.

The vociferous protests being heard from various quarters at the shifting of the Amar Jawan Jyoti — the eternal flame which honours India’s “unknown soldier”—from its location under India Gate to the National War Memorial (NWM) not only represent an irony for India’s military veterans, but also a deep schism in India’s socio-political landscape.

The location chosen for the flame was not the most appropriate. India Gate, Edward Lutyen’s half-hearted attempt to copy the magnificent French Arc de Triomphe was a war memorial erected by the British, in 1921 in memory of soldiers who died in World War Iand the Third Anglo-Afghan War. While most of the names engraved on the granite walls are of Indian soldiers, a few British officers and soldiers find a place too. The monument does not celebrate a national war and could, at best, be an ad-hoc memorial for India’s fallen.

The BJP’s 2014 election manifesto, which contained a pledge to “Build a War Memorial to recognise and honour the gallantry of our soldiers ”brought hope to many veterans. Five years later, the pledge was redeemed with the inauguration of a 40-acre NWM complex in a central location in the Capital. This was seen by veterans not only as a belated mea culpa by the nation and its political establishment, but also a morale-booster for a million and a half men and women bearing arms. The NWM is now a place for citizens to pay homage to our fallen military heroes. Co-locating the Amar Jawan Jyoti with the NWM seems a logical step, and need not become a subject of political controversy.