Issue 18

Morphing a Monument

Ujjwala Shankar

The decision to extinguish the Amar Jawan Jyoti at the India Gate elicited both admiration and outrage, but there might be problems with both reactions.

On 21st January 2022, the Amar Jawan Jyoti, the flame that had been burning at the India Gate for the past fifty years, was ‘merged’ with the flame at the National War Memorial. The Jyoti had been established in 1972 by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, to commemorate the soldiers who had lost their lives in the 1971 Indo-Pak War. The decision was met with mixed reactions from the public. 

Among those who lauded the Central Government, there seemed to be a broad consensus about the legitimacy of such an action — that the government had carried out a long overdue ritual. After the government’s announcement, a barrage of social-media users felt the need to incessantly emphasise the semantic difference between “merging” the flame and “extinguishing” it. If the flames had indeed been ‘merged’, then there would have been two flames burning in the capital right now. However, the government asserts that this is not feasible as “maintenance of two flames would have been difficult.” One might argue that a new parliament building worth Rs 13,000 crore might require much more maintenance than a single additional flame. But logic seems incongruous with the current political environment.

Another popular justification for this action seems to stem from the fact that the India Gate is a colonial monument. “It may have been intended as a tribute to hundreds of India’s bravest who fought for the British, but it is also a monument to British immorality,” noted prime time television journalist, Rahul Shivshankar in an article for The Times Of India. The ghost of colonial injustices, looming over the India Gate, has suddenly become so overpowering that a monument dedicated to those who bore the brunt of those very injustices has lost its significance. This discomfort with our colonial past is not just flawed, but also selective; colonial DNA flows through the veins of every single government institution of present-day India, the most glaring example of all being the Indian Military. The Beating Retreat is definitely not an ‘inherently Indian’ concept, yet it is a tradition we have grown to associate with the Indian Republic.

However, the “merger” of the flames was also criticised in equal measure. A wide section of critics, including army veterans and opposition party members, lamented the loss of an iconic symbol. Some also noted that the eternal flame is no longer eternal, suggesting that the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government is putting the immortality of age-old conventions at stake here. The problem with such a discourse lies with how heavily rooted in nostalgia it is, thereby implying that change is the crime of which the BJP is guilty. It also gives way to other misplaced criticisms. An example of this would be a tweet by Rashtriya Janata Dal MP Manoj Kumar Jha, who voiced a sentiment echoed by multiple other critics. “It is understandable that the present regime may not have a sense of attachment or belonging with the ‘glories of the past’…” he tweeted. This is not quite the case. In fact, the BJP is deeply invested in the past. It is for this reason that their ideological machinery paints an elaborate picture of important historical events, which increases the significance of Hindutva icons, like Vir Savarkar. Further, the newly established hologram of Netaji Subhash Chandra Bose at Rajpath shows how the BJP can effortlessly weave someone like Bose into the fabric of Hindutva. Renowned historian Rama Chandra Guha, during a conversation with The Indian Express, observed, “ [Bose] detested the Hindu Mahasabha and would have detested the RSS.”  While this prediction may or may not be true, what is truly petrifying is that it doesn’t really matter. The BJP’s powers of hypnosis are so strong that its supporters blindly buy its lies, without feeling the need to question its foundations. On top of this, rooting the criticism of the government’s recent ideologically-driven exercise in nostalgia only trivialises the magnitude of the BJP’s shrewd political machinations. 

The displacement of the Amar Jawan Jyoti and the inauguration of Netaji’s Hologram, among other events of “Aazadi Ka Amrit Mahotsav,” don’t merely affect our memory of the past, but also colour our idea of the present with saffron hues. It makes us believe that under the current regime, India is transitioning into a new epoch. Moreover, by carrying out such “historic events,” the BJP claims that it is doing what the Congress couldn’t do in over seventy years: settling the scores of history by reviving past heroes. But in turn, they successfully project Narendra Modi and his deputies as the ‘real’ heroes. 

Ujjwala Shankar is a first-year undergraduate student at Ashoka University. She likes to write about Politics, Economics, and Literature. In her free time, she loves watching films and hopes to become a film critic someday.

We publish all articles under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noderivatives license. This means any news organisation, blog, website, newspaper or newsletter can republish our pieces for free, provided they attribute the original source (OpenAxis).

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