The remarkable thing about the Ground Zero memorial is not its aesthetic or its scale or even that Dubya and Obama had buried party differences to come together to honour the 3,000-odd lives lost ten years ago on September 11. The remarkable thing about it was that it existed.
We’ve had our 9/11s too, far too many of them. An estimated 8,856 civilians have been killed in terror strikes (not including left-wing terrorism) across the country since 2001, according to the South Asia Terrorism Portal. Yet you’d have to look really hard to find even a plaque commemorating these lost lives, innocent civilians caught in the wrong place at the wrong time and collateral damage in someone else’s war.
In Mumbai we’ve had prayer meetings and candle-light vigils; flag marches and speeches. The Taj Hotel has a Tree of Life for the 31 people, including 11 staffers, who lost their lives on 26/11. But at busy Chhatrapati Shivaji Terminus (CST) railway terminus there is no sign that points to where 57 people shed their blood on the same day. Two years ago, then railway minister Mamata Banerjee spoke of a memorial — or was it a museum? But the blueprint of this structure and when, if ever, it will come up remain a State secret.
Perhaps life is cheap in our part of the world where people die ever so often in bomb blasts and hospital authorities ask next of kin to pay for shrouds to take the bodies home. Perhaps we have too many 9/11s to keep track of. Perhaps so many memorials to so many dates from 26/11 to 7/9 dotting our landscape from Kashmir to the North-east would serve as a rebuke to a State that has failed to protect aam aadmi lives. “You can’t have a memorial for something that happens all the time all over India,” says a former home secretary.
Americans believe that those who died on 9/11 are heroes, even though they were like us, men and women earning a livelihood, rearing families, sharing hopes and disappointments through the conduct of life. But in India we tend to see our dead as victims, individual lives meshed into a larger tale of collective karma, unsung statistics undeserving of even the dignity of a permanent memorial.
Those in uniform, and I am not belittling their sacrifice, still manage to get their due, however niggardly. At Mumbai Police Gymkhana, there is a martyr’s memorial to the 18 policemen who died on 26/11 but a national police memorial in New Delhi is still under construction. We have yet to get a national war memorial. The Amar Jawan Jyoti beneath India Gate, built by the British in 1921 to honour soldiers who died in World War 1, honours the unknown soldier. Two years ago, Karnataka MP Rajeev Chandrasekhar sent a proposal, with designs, for a national war memorial to be built in Delhi. That proposal, say sources, is ‘under consideration’; meanwhile Chandrasekhar has managed to get one going in Bangalore.
And yet, we have no shortage of memorials to great and not-so-great leaders. The Mayawati government, to give one example, has made the construction of statues from BR Ambedkar to Mayawati herself something of a cottage industry. Behenji’s drive is so exuberant that the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) took note of the escalation in costs of two projects, one for Ambedkar and the other for Kanshi Ram, from an initial R881.22 crore to R2451.93 crore.
Memorials are largely symbolic, often reminding succeeding generations of a life well lived. What inspired Gandhiji? Are there lessons that we can continue to learn from his life? At Rajghat, hundreds of people continue to seek those answers.
But who will speak for the innocent citizen of a terror strike? “It’s not about a memorial but about honouring the dead,” says Chandrasekhar. Yet, a memorial to Indians killed in terror attacks would do more than serve as catharsis for a shocked and increasingly benumbed nation. Ultimately a memorial is also a signal of determination. At Ground Zero, ten years after 9/11, that message is clear: no more, these lives were lost, but never again.
Can we in India really say that?
( Namita Bhandare is a Delhi-based writer )
The views expressed by the author are personal