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Why do we ignore our war dead?

By Colonel R Hariharan (retd)
Last updated on: May 12, 2010 13:57 IST
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A small news item in a well known weekly of  Colombo on the eve of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's visit to Colombo in August 2008 to attend the SAARC summit meeting caught my eye.

The Sunday Times, Colombo, said: "Questions are being asked as to who will unveil a monument in memory of Indian soldiers killed during their peacekeeping operation in Sri Lanka after plans to get it opened by Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh during the SAARC summit failed." That memorial has still not been opened and lies in a state of neglect. As one who actively participated in the much maligned Indian Peace Keeping Force operations in Sri Lanka from 1987 to 1990, I felt very hurt at the way we treat the memory of our war dead.

After all 1,255 soldiers of the IPKF died in a foreign soil fighting a war nobody bothered about in this country. I wonder why the prime minister found no 'time' in his Colombo itinerary for a small task that would have taken him a few minutes only. Apparently the Sri Lanka government had taken up the proposal for its inauguration by Dr Manmohan Singh well in advance as reported in Sri Lanka media. 

Who shot down the proposal? Evidently it must be one of the political 'advisors' or bureaucrat who had a hand in drawing the PM's schedule. There could be only two reasons -- opening the memorial would not be either 'politically correct' or the memorial for the dead soldiers did not 'deserve' the PM to open it.

Whatever be the reason, the bottom line is the nation's prime minister could not find time to open the only memorial ever built for his soldiers by the grateful Sri Lankans. The memorial is now a monument to our national indifference to the war dead. To those of us who personally knew many of those who died in Sri Lanka, it remains a slap in the face.

If I sound emotional on this issue, there is a background to it. After my retirement, I tried to get a memorial put up for the soldiers who died in Sri Lanka operations. I went about in the cynical way we make things work in this country. I found a media man I knew from my Sri Lanka days. He had good political access to the late G K Moopanar, senior Congress leader, who wielded a big clout in New Delhi.

The Congress was then allied with the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazagham which was ruling Tamil Nadu. And Chief Minister J Jayalalitha was a known supporter of Indian intervention, just like her mentor MGR. So when I met Moopanar, the Congress leader was quite open to the idea of a memorial in Chennai for the IPKF war dead.

He saw no problem in putting in a word both at the Centre and state level, provided the army also took up a case for erecting a memorial in Chennai.

I wrote to army bigwigs. I got a polite letter from the local army formation headquarters asking me to put up a statement of case as per the relevant army instruction for erecting war memorials. Apparently they had decided it was not their job. Of course, knowing I am a retired guy they were kind enough to send me the relevant form for filling up. I was shocked at the indifference of my own brethren still in service. That brought home the truth that bureaucrats are the same whether in uniform or otherwise. And indifference is their hallmark.

My proposal had a dismal end when Congress and AIADMK alliance broke up after a few months. And my media friend told me we could still take up through other public organisations and asked me to suggest a design. I had neither the energy nor mindset to start all over as my cup of bitterness was full.

I suggested a giant closet in which if you pull the chain and the names of the 1,255 dead would appear electronically, flow into the flush and vanish. It would be a fitting design for a memorial for the war dead whose memory has been flushed away in the national bilge. I still believe it would be a realistic, if not appropriate, memorial. 

We should have observed the 60th anniversary of the Armed Forces Flag Day on December 7, 2009. But the nation 'forgot' about it. But it was a logical sequence to our approach to Flag Day. I presume the burden of observing flag day falls on the hapless district collector, already burdened with demands of political minions. And it is done in the same way as any other flag day is 'handled': as a chance to collect money from public for a cause nobody understands.

My friend Lieutenant Colonel C R Sundar drew my attention to a Chennai Tamil daily of November 26, 2009 which showed a photograph of the Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M Karunanidhi contributing to the `Flag Day' with the Chennai Collector standing nearby. The caption said the contribution was for the `national unity and religious understanding. This is a travesty of its original purpose.

The idea of Armed Forces Flag Day was to honour the valiant dead, and salute the brave veterans as per the decision taken by the Defence Committee of the Cabinet on August 28, 1949 to observe (instead of celebrate) Armed Forces Flag Day on December 7. 

In fact, independent India replaced the Armistice Day observed on November 11 in the British Commonwealth with the Armed Forces Flag Day. The Armistice Day came to be observed after the end of World War I that had caused untold misery and innumerable deaths. It is also known as the Poppy Day in a tribute to the soldiers on whose graves poppy flowers bloomed.

Last year, I saw British Prime Minister George Brown appearing with a paper poppy on his lapel in a commemoration news clip on the BBC. The newscasters were all wearing a poppy.

We learned so many things from the British but never learned how to honour our war dead. Even the war graves in India are maintained spick and span by the Commonwealth Graves Commission till this day.

The British also remembered the memory of Indians who died for the empire. It is a national shame that the current memorial, the Amar Jawan Jyoti, in the national capital is only an appendage to the India Gate, an imposing 42-metre high British structure, built in 1921, to honour the 90,000 Indian soldiers who died in the First World War.

India even after 65 years of independence finds it bothersome to build a memorial for the Unknown Soldier in the national capital. The army's request to suitably commemorate those who fell in service of the republic has not yet found favour in Lutyens Delhi.

We as a nation are notorious how we treat our dead. The filth and disorder common in our cremation grounds and cemeteries bear testimony to our indifference. So why commemorate the war dead, one may ask. The answer is simple: the soldiers died so that we may live. And the least we can do is to remember them.

Colonel R Hariharan, a retired military intelligence specialist on South Asia, is associated with the South Asia Analysis Group and the Chennai Centre for China Studies. 

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Colonel R Hariharan (retd)