India Gate
An Indian Legacy
A letter of wounded Indian soldier dated January 18, 1915 from a hospital in Brighton town in England raised a simple predicament, "If I die here, who will remember me"? Similar thoughts must have crossed the minds of many Indians as they sailed away from Indian shores, for battles perceived as irrelevant and fought in distant lands. The dead must have rejoiced with a breath of relief; their names did find space on the arches of India Gate, even though not in hearts of common Indian citizens. The commemoration of World War - I by the Army in New Delhi in March 2015 as part of centenary commemoration of the war, revived memories faded over time.
It may be worthwhile to peep into history to reflect on what India Gate stood for and its relevance for Independent India.
All India War Memorial
The All India War Memorial (now India Gate), was part of the work of the 'Imperial War Graves Commission', constituted in December 1917 for building war graves and memorials of soldiers killed in World War - I.
During the War of 1914-1918 Indian soldiers served in every main theatre of operations. Of the 1.5 million Indians who fought the war, more than 70,000 perished. In addition, for 13,516 (12,126 Indians and 1,390 British) soldiers who fell in the fighting on or beyond the North West Frontier and who have no known grave, it was originally proposed to erect a Memorial at Attock, on the Indus. It was however considered impractical to use such a site, being inaccessible and beyond the limits of established order. The commemoration of these soldiers was thus incorporated as part of the Memorial at Delhi.
The inscription at the top of the archon the Memorial commemorating the soldiers, reads:-
The monument is 160 feet high, the height of the Arch being 138 feet. The main tunnel, which bridges the processional route, is 30 feet wide. The whole Arch is surmounted by great cornices. Above these is a circular stone bowl 11.5 feet in diameter. This was intended to be filled with burning oil and generated smoke on great anniversaries. It only burns on special occasions now.
The All-India War Memorial was designed by Edwin Lutyens, who had also designed sixty-five war memorials in Europe. The foundation stone was laid on February 10, 1921, by the visiting Duke of Connaught, who read out the Kings message:-
"On this spot, there will stand a Memorial Archway, designed to keep in the thoughts of future generations the glorious sacrifice of the officers and men of the Indian Army who fought and fell".
Ten years later, on February 12, 1931, the memorial was inaugurated by the Viceroy, Lord Irwin. An extract drawn from his speech stated:-
"It is not therefore for ourselves that we have made this visible remembrance of great deeds, but rather that those who after us shall look upon this monument, may learn in pondering its purpose, something of that spirit of sacrifice and service which the names upon its wall record".
I could not resist translating from the 'Fauji Akhbar' (Erstwhile 'Sanik Samachar') of February 14 and 21, 1931 which listed events during the inauguration ceremony :-
"On February 12, 1931, five minutes before 5pm, the Viceroy, Lord Irwin with his wife began in the Royal carriage from Viceroy's House (now the President's House) towards the newly created memorial, amidst the salute of guns. Jawans of Delhi Independent Brigade were standing on both sides of the road. Two squadrons of planes also flew down in formation when the Royal carriage reached the Memorial.
On either side of the War Memorial, two Guards of Honour were lined up; one from York & Lancaster Regiment (British) and the other from the Punjab Regiment (India). The Viceroy took the Guard of Honour. The Viceroy addressed the gathering. The Hindi version of his address was read by Major Malik Mehar Khan of 20 Lancers.
Thereafter, the flame was lit up inside the memorial with the falling shadows of the evening. The Last Post was played and floral tributes were paid to the martyrs by the Viceroy, Commander-in-Chief, Adjutant General, one British soldier, one British airman and one Indian sapper (Narasi Mullu from Madras Sappers and Miners)who was chosen as the representatives of Indian Army through draw of lots.
The ceremony closed with the Viceroy and his wife passing through the War Memorial in the Royal carriage, followed by the officers and jawans of Indian Army marching to the military tunes of the First World War".
India Gate
India's post-independence governments relocated or made additions to many existing imperial architectures. This particular imperial war memorial was renamed India Gate. The canopy adjoining India Gate housing a 50 feet tall statue of King George V, was removed and now stands in the Coronation Park. World War - I was not a war to remember on eve of independence, or thereafter.
Vehicles and parades used to march under the arches of India Gate, till traffic restrictions were put in place in 1950s. Maj Gen SK Sinha, the then Deputy Adjutant General recollected that towards end December 1971 and post the ceasefire, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi expressed her desire to pay homage to martyred soldiers of 1971 war on occasion of Republic Day (January 26, 1972). The only location available and considered suitable was the India Gate. A simple structure consisting of a marble plinth, with reversed rifle, capped by war helmet and bounded by four eternal flames, was built beneath the Memorial Archway, at short notice. This structure is called Amar Jawan Jyoti. Subsequent deliberations over the years repeatedly underscored need for a National War Memorial, but it never fructified, lamented Gen Sinha.
Locating the Amar Jawan Jyoti there, though well intended, did undermine the relevance of India Gate and maybe of those inscribed on its walls, consciously or subconsciously in memories of subsequent generations. Extracts from Vedica Kants book, "India and the First World War" talks about this phenomenon – "Despite the Indian contribution, there is limited existent memory of the war in India itself. The Amar Jawan Jyoti, was a refashioning of the symbolism of the site away from its colonial legacy. India Gate remains the iconic site the British wanted it to be, but today it stands largely stripped of its intended meaning and context".
Chander Singh Bisht, the gas operator has been lighting the flame in stone bowl on top of India Gate; January 26 to 29 and for half an hour on August 15, every year since past 40 years. At the Amar Jawan Jyoti, one flame out of the four always remains alight while all four burn on ceremonies.
Relevance of India Gate
In July 2014, then Defence Minister Mr Arun Jaitley announced government decision to erect a National War Memorial in the vicinity of the India Gate, in honour of armed forces members killed in various wars after Independence. A War Museum will be constructed in the adjoining Princess Park area. The landscape around India Gate will change, yet India Gate will continue to tower over the proposed War Memorial and remind us of the legacy of a war fought by Indians prior to independence and forgotten by many Indians. While the Amar Jawan Jyoti has been a symbol of victory and a source of pride for all Indians, India Gate does not evoke similar emotions and is more looked upon for its structural brilliance. In fact many visitors would be unaware of the historic relevance of India Gate.
A war memorial, anywhere in the world simply pays tribute to a nation's fallen brave and does not classify it into eras. 1.6 lakh war dead of undivided India are buried and commemorated on memorials in more than 60 countries around the world. Within the military, the memory of soldier is kept alive, simply because they believe that eventually – a soldier fights for the soldier next to him – a bond that is as timeless as the profession of arms. Yet, the dignity of millions of our forefathers, sent to a war prior to independence needs to be restored in the national consciousness. Colonial India's contribution to the world wars must figure in India's historical narrative and in that context, India Gate must remain an Indian Legacy.
- Col Rohan Anand
January 26, 1973, India Gate with AJJ
View of the placing of wreaths at the All India War Memorial on February 12, 1931 Courtesy  'If I die here who will remember me...' by Vedica Kant and Published by: Roli Books.
India Gate as shown in Fauji Akhbar of February 14, 1931