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Our historians have scant interest in wars or soldiers

Between the old imperialist memorial and the proposed nationalist one — the proposed National War Memorial — India’s contribution to the Second World War has been airbrushed out of existence

columns Updated: May 10, 2017 15:33 IST
An ANZAC soldier’s grave stone at the ANZAC cemetery, April 24, pictured to commemorate the 102th anniversary of the Anzac Day. On April 25, 1915 landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army corps (ANZAC) at Gallipoli in modern-day Turkey has become a defining symbol of courage and comradeship for both nations.
An ANZAC soldier’s grave stone at the ANZAC cemetery, April 24, pictured to commemorate the 102th anniversary of the Anzac Day. On April 25, 1915 landing of the Australian and New Zealand Army corps (ANZAC) at Gallipoli in modern-day Turkey has become a defining symbol of courage and comradeship for both nations. (AFP)

A little over six months ago, the government announced an international competition to design a “National War Memorial” in New Delhi. The memorial is intended to honour all Indian soldiers who served in the various wars and counter-insurgency campaigns from 1947 onwards. While the demand for a war memorial has been voiced periodically, there has been little public discussion on how and why we should commemorate our wars. The absence of such a debate struck me forcefully when I landed in Australia ahead of Anzac Day.

25 April 2017 marked the 102nd anniversary of the Allied landings in Gallipoli during the First World War. Among the forces that took part in the campaign was the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac). The death of over 8,000 Australian soldiers in this star-crossed campaign left a profound and seemingly indelible impression back home. Over the following decades, April 25 became the most significant day in the national calendar—an occasion to commemorate not just Gallipoli, but all Australian wars and campaigns down to Iraq and Afghanistan.

I attended a Dawn Service in the small coastal town of Torquay. It had been raining without pause since the previous afternoon, yet some 3,000 people turned up for the commemoration at 6am. The ceremonial parade included several veterans: the oldest had fought in the Second World War. The event at once affirmed the centrality of the Anzac legend to Australian nationalism and twinned it with the country’s ongoing overseas military commitments. It was particularly interesting to see a pair of schoolchildren pledging their generation’s commitment to the values of the Anzac soldiers.

In fact, Australians’ understanding of these values has changed considerably over the past century and has been the locus of serious public debates. In its first telling—especially by the official historian Charles Bean—the Anzac legend emphasised the racial vitality and manliness of the Australian soldiers. Their sacrifice had washed the stain of the country’s convict heritage, created its sense of nationhood, and allowed it to join the comity of white nations as an equal. This hugely influential narrative of military baptism was not unchallenged, however.

As early as 1925, the Labour government in Western Australia forbade Anzac Day speeches in schools as these were “directed to the glorification of war.” Although this proved an abortive attempt, the underlying concerns resurfaced in the late 1960s—now in the light of protests against Australian participation in the Vietnam War and the accompanying counter-culture that sought to puncture the claims of the nation. While older generations took pride in espousing Australia’s imperial connection with Britain, the young radicals denounced imperialism. In any case, few veterans of the First World War were still around to take part in the commemorations. A decade on, it seemed as if Anzac Day would itself recede into history.

Ironically, the grip of the Anzac legend on public memory grew even as that generation passed on. The impetus now came from the top. Starting with Prime Minister Bob Hawke, who visited Gallipoli on Anzac Day 1990, Australian leaders began heavily deploying the state’s resources to revive the legend of Anzac. The story was told in a different register though. The Anzacs were still presented as the progenitors of the nation, but their tale was no longer of racial virility but of tragedy and comradeship. These efforts were buttressed by new research drawing on private letters and oral histories as well as the wider post-Cold War turn from ideology towards memory.

The deepening role of the state in promoting the Anzac legend, especially ahead of the centenary in 2015, was sharply criticised by leading historians. A group of scholars led by Marilyn Young lamented the “veritable tidal wave of military history” that was sweeping over history curricula. Joan Beaumont wrote scathingly of a “memory orgy” and the “commodification” of the past. Other historians, however, pointed out that notwithstanding the government’s attempts to purvey an officially sanctioned version, the Australian people made sense of the commemorations in diverse ways. If anything, the study of war history enabled critical perspectives on both the past and the present. These ideas, in turn, inflect discussions in newspapers, television and radio.

While India may soon have the panoply of war memorial and commemorations, it is unlikely that we will witness debates of this quality. Our historians have scant interest in wars or soldiers. The notion that war might be an important motor of historical change is alien to most Indian scholars. As such they are ill equipped to critique or question the military myths that will be purveyed by the state in fostering new forms of nationalism. The silence of academic historians over the absurd “commemoration and celebration” organised on the 50th anniversary of the 1965 war presages their likely contribution in the future.

Nor have the proposals for the new war memorial received any critical scrutiny by scholars. The terms of the reference specified that the new structure would have to be built adjacent to the India Gate — a memorial to the Indian soldiers who died in the First World War. So, between the old imperialist memorial and the proposed nationalist one, India’s contribution to the Second World War is literally airbrushed out of existence. Isn’t it curious that the war that most impacted the lives of ordinary Indians and that resulted in serious popular mobilisation should have no purchase on our collective imagination?

The absence of academic engagement with military history leaves the field wide open for ideological appropriation. At a time when the military is being placed on a pedestal and the rest of us told to adopt a posture of foetal admiration, such disinterest could prove costly.

Srinath Raghavan is senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi

The views expressed are personal