Eternal flames merge amid political conflict
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.
The flame at the Amar Jawan Jyoti was lit at India Gate’s arch on January 26, 1972, by the Indira Gandhi government to honour the soldiers who fell in the 1971 war with Pakistan, which ended with the liberation of Bangladesh.
India Gate, a British-era monument, was built in the memory of around 90,000 soldiers of the British Indian Army who fell in World War I and the Afghan war. However, only names of 13,218 soldiers, including British men and officers, are inscribed on it, officials said on the condition of anonymity.
Air Marshal BR Krishna, the chief of integrated defence staff to the chairman, chiefs of staff committee (CISC), presided over the two ceremonies that involved a tri-service guard of honour and the shifting of the flame from Amar Jawan Jyoti to the sprawling NWM, a monument dedicated to soldiers who fell in post-Independence wars and operations.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurated NWM almost three years ago, on February 25, 2019, and since then, more than 3.1 million people have visited the memorial and paid homage to the country’s fallen heroes whose names are inscribed on its walls. As on date, the names of 26,466 brave warriors are inscribed on the memorial, including the ones who fell in the 1971 war.
The decision to shift the eternal flame triggered a political slugfest with the Congress accusing the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government of erasing history and the Centre, in its counter offensive, blaming the Opposition party for spreading misinformation and questioning why it did not build a national war memorial despite being in power for decades.
Former servicemen were divided on the matter, with some of them speaking out in favour of the move saying two eternal flames in the same venue did not make sense and it was a wise call to shift the flame to NWM, and some others criticising the decision and seeking its recall.
“Some people cannot understand patriotism and sacrifice. It is a matter of great sadness that the immortal flame for our brave soldiers will be extinguished today,” Congress leader Rahul Gandhi wrote on Twitter, leading to a flurry of reactions.
It is ironic that people who did not construct a national war memorial for seven decades are making a hue and cry when a permanent and fitting tribute is being given to India’s fallen heroes, said a senior official, one of the people cited above.
“It was an odd thing to see that the flame at Amar Jawan Jyoti paid homage to the braves of the 1971 war but none of their names are engraved there,” the official added.
The controversy surrounding the eternal flame has erupted at a time when the government has started work on an overarching plan to take NWM to the people through a large-scale communication exercise, a move that has been welcomed by former servicemen, as reported by Hindustan Times on Friday.
The defence ministry has sought the help of the information and broadcasting ministry for the elaborate exercise.
“NWM is the nation’s icon for paying tributes to our braves. It bears the name of every single soldier who has died in the service of independent India. It has a flame that represents each of those men. No flame is getting extinguished. Both flames are being merged,” defence secretary Ajay Kumar told a news channel.
The need to construct a national war memorial was first highlighted in 1961 but the government approval came only in October 2015, said a second official.
Congress leader Manish Tewari likened the extinguishing of the flame at Amar Jawan Jyoti to removing history. “Extinguishing Amar Jawan Jyoti tantamount to extinguishing history. For it commentates sacrifice of those 3,483 brave soldiers who cleaved Pakistan into two parts and redrew the map of South Asia post-partition,” he tweeted.
Some people also asked why it wasn’t possible to have two eternal flames at India Gate in the memory of the country’s fallen braves.
Former Northern Army commander Lieutenant General DS Hooda (retd), was among the veterans who supported the move to merge the flames.
“I don’t want to get into the politics, but with all ceremonies now happening at NWM, it’s appropriate that the flames be merged. Now that we have NWM, it is appropriate that the Amar Jawan Jyoti be there,” Hooda said.
Lieutenant General Satish Dua (retd), a former CISC, also found nothing wrong with the development. “Now NWM will become the officially designated place to pay homage to the fallen brave hearts…This is not insulting or degrading to any war hero,” Dua added.
Some veterans, however, asked the government to reconsider its decision.
“Sir, the eternal flame at #IndiaGate is part of India’s psyche. You, I & r generation grew up saluting our brave jawans there. While #NationalWarMemorial is great, the memories of #AmarJawanJyoti are indelible. Request rescind decision,” Air Vice Marshal Manmohan Bahadur (retd) tweeted, tagging the PM.
Congress lawmaker Shashi Tharoor said the government had no respect for democratic traditions and established conventions, and it was “snuffing out” the sanctity of the Amar Jawan Jyoti. Rashtriya Janata Dal MP Manoj Kumar Jha said such moves were “neither good politics nor good optics”.
The government believes a lot more can be done to publicise the war memorial, attract more visitors and allow them to form a conscious connect with the sacred site and the fallen braves. The defence secretary on January 11 chaired a meeting that focussed on this issue.
(With inputs from Malavika Murali and Isha Sahai Bhatnagar)