Armed Forces & Politics: Amar Jawan Jyoti, 'Mercenary' Tag & Grooving Navy Contingent

Armed Forces & Politics:  Amar Jawan Jyoti, Mercenary Tag & Grooving Navy Contingent

On Friday morning, news agency ANI cited an Indian Army official to report that the 'eternal' flame of the Amar Jawan Jyoti, which has been burning for 50 years, will be extinguished and merged with the flame at the National War Memorial on 21 January.

"The Amar Jawan Jyoti at India Gate will be extinguished and merged with the flame at the National War Memorial on Friday in a ceremony," the official was quoted as saying.

The ceremony, according to reports, was presided over by the Integrated Defence Staff chief Air Marshal Balabhadra Radha Krishna.

What is Amar Jawan Jyoti?

The Amar Jawan Jyoti, loosely translated as Flame of the immortal soldier, is an Indian memorial constructed after the Indo-Pakistani War of 1971 to commemorate the martyred and unknown soldiers of the Indian Armed Forces who died during the war. Amar Jawan Jyoti consists of a marble pedestal on which a cenotaph is situated. "Amar Jawan" (Immortal Soldier) is scripted in gold on all four sides of the cenotaph and on top, a L1A1 Self-Loading Rifle stands on its barrel with a helmet of the Unknown Soldier on top. The pedestal is bound by four urns, one of which holds a continuously burning flame.

The memorial is located at two places. The first one was constructed in December 1971 and inaugurated by Indira Gandhi in 1972 under India Gate at Rajpath in New Delhi and the second one was installed under the National War Memorial to honour all known martyrs (post independence) of Indian Armed Forces with their names written in 'Golden letters'. Completed in February 2019 and inaugurated by Narendra Modi on 25 February, with the igniting of the eternal flame of Jawans "Amar Jawan Jyoti".

The India Gate was built by the British in the memory of soldiers of the British Indian Army who died in World War-I.

Since 1972, every-year on the Republic Day (before the Republic Day parade), it had been customary for the President, Prime Minister, Chief of the Air Staff, Chief of the Naval Staff, Chief of the Army Staff and dignitaries to place a wreath at Amar Jawan Jyoti and pay homage to the dead and unknown soldiers

Controversy over the decision

Right after the news came out, opposition parties, journalists and historians questioned the move by the government.

Hitting out at the decision, Congress leader Rahul Gandhi tweeted in Hindi: "It is a matter of great sadness that the immortal flame that used to burn for our brave soldiers will be extinguished today. Some people cannot understand patriotism and sacrifice - never mind…We will once again light the Amar Jawan Jyoti for our soldiers!"

Senior journalist Barkha Dutt, calling the Amar Jawan Jyoti at the India Gate one of the "corners in the heart of nation", said: "There are corners in the heart of a nation. The #AmarJawanJyoti is one. You don't break a piece of your heart to make room for another , you just make space for more. Just sad to imagine India Gate without the flame."

Clarification issued by government

Amid the sharp criticism, the government said a "lot of misinformation" was circulating.

"The flame of the Amar Jawan Jyoti is not being extinguished. It is being merged with the flame at the National War Memorial. It was an odd thing to see that the flame at Amar Jawan Jyoti paid homage to the martyrs of the 1971 and other wars but none of their names are present there," said government sources.

The names inscribed on the India Gate are those who fought for for the British in the World War-I and Anglo Afghan War, said the government, describing it as "a symbol of our colonial past".

The sources argued that the names of Indian soldiers who died in wars after Independence, including the 1971 war, are engraved at the National War Memorial. "It is a true shraddhanjali (tribute) to have the flame paying tribute to martyrs there," they said.

Targeting Opposition leaders who have slammed the government on the move, the government sources said it is "ironic that people who did not make a National War Memorial for 7 decades are now making a hue and cry when a permanent and fitting tribute is being made to our martyrs".

'Mercenaries' or soldiers?

In a short ceremony Friday, a part of the Amar Jawan Jyoti flame at India Gate was taken and merged with the flame at the National War Memorial, a stone's throw away from India Gate.

After the statement from the government sources categorizing names inscribed at India Gate of Indian soldiers who fought for for the British in the World War-I and Anglo Afghan War as "a symbol of our colonial past", another battle raged on social media over the usage of the word 'mercenary' for British Indian Army soldiers. A mercenary is a professional soldier hired by a foreign army. A section of veterans, supporting the government move, said the soldiers who fought under the banner of British Indian Army were 'mercenaries'.

Maj. Gen. G.D. Bakshi (retd) and Col. D.P.K. Pillai (retd, Shaurya Chakra awardee) made controversial statements to justify the move.

Navy contingent grooving to B-tunes

In run-up to the Republic Day celebrations this year, many videos and pictures of the Indian Navy, Army contingents have been shared online. One among them is going viral on the internet, and has divided people as well as veterans.

A video that was taken by PTI journalist Arun Sharma shows the Indian Navy contingent dancing and grooving to Bollywood songs with a lot of zeal and vigour. The men in uniform are seen tapping their rifles in Delhi's extreme cold and singing those songs as well. It was shared by the journalist and PTI's social media handles. The video ended up creating another political slugfest in a week that had seen already two controversies involving armed forces.

Though many from the opposition and other walks of life applauded the young soldiers, leaders like TMC's Mahua Moitra have managed to stir up political drama by claiming to be "sick to the stomach" on seeing jawans groove to Bollywood numbers and she isn't alone. Youth Congress chief BV Srinivas has also slammed the video while RJD called it an "embarrassing imposition" on the Army by the Centre.

A veteran's POV

To get a perspective on the various developments in the last week involving armed forces, HW News spoke to Lt Gen DS Hooda (Retd.). Gen Hooda is the former General Officer Commanding-in-Chief of the Indian army's Northern Command and oversaw the 'surgical strike' in September 2016.

"The merger of Amar Jawan Jyoti is less of a veteran's issue and more of a political issue," said Gen Hooda."It is a completely political issue so I would avoid commenting on it. But I would say that all the other rituals which used to happen at India Gate now happen at war memorial, even the Prime Minister paying homage. On the other hand, the Amar Jawan Jyoti at the India Gate has been burning for last 50 years, it has become symbolic. So why shift? So whichever way want to comment on it, it naturally becomes political," Gen Hooda added.

However, when questioned about the 'mercenary' comments made by some veterans, Gen Hooda said it was an "absolutely wrong" thing to say.

"Soldiers fight for the government of the day, which is the right thing to do. Following instructions from the government of the day is what makes the military apolitical. Lot of our traditions have been taken from the pre-independent times. We celebrate large number of our battle honours, which are pre-independence. There are officers who served in the British Indian Army, and then also fought the 1947-48 war after it became the Indian Army. So are we going to call those officers as 'mercenaries'?" asked Gen Hooda.

Reacting on the video of navy contingent grooving to bollywood songs during rehearsals of R-day parade, Gen Hooda said: "I think the Navy has already provided a clarification on that. It was not an official parade and the weather was cold. So they said they were just trying to keep warm. And I think the Navy has told them that it is an age of smartphones and social media so they should be careful about such things. But we should not give it a colour that something official was being done there. It was not part of an official parade."

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