Why did Indira Gandhi choose to erect a memorial to soldiers who had given their lives for the Bangladesh War right under the archway of that monument to the colonial army, India Gate? And why has PM Modi chosen to extinguish its fire and merge it into another eternal flame that formally breaks with any memory of the Raj?
To understand this, we need to revisit the tensions that underlay the formation of the independent Indian state.
But first, a detour to an early morning in August, 1965. Two days before Independence Day. Prime Minister Shastri was probably awake, poring over reports from General Jayanto Chaudhuri on how India’s soldiers were poised against their Pakistani counterparts. In another three weeks, India would push through its advantage and almost encircle Lahore.
But that day, in the heart of Lutyens Delhi, a motley crew of activists from the Samyukta Socialist Party were on their way to fight a battle of their own. Armed with buckets of tar, a ladder and some hammers, they silently walked up to India Gate, overpowered two soldiers, knocking one unconscious, climbed up onto the imposing statue of King George V under the adjoining canopy, smeared his face with tar, hacked off his crown, chipped off the nose and ears, and hung a picture of Subhash Chandra Bose on it. Having achieved their symbolic victory, the group disappeared into the night.
The act was universally panned by English-language newspapers. Frank Moraes, father of the poet Dom Moraes, a Gandhian pukka sahib, who was editor of the Indian Express, called it “perverted patriotism”. In this, his views were no different from those of Nehru or Sardar Patel. As Home Minister, Patel had formally reprimanded the Bombay government for bothering about British monuments when there were much more urgent matters to deal with. Nehru had an even more accommodating attitude towards symbols of the Raj, considering British statues and monuments to be an integral part of India’s history.
This surprised many foreign visitors to the New Delhi of those times. President Eisenhower would comment in 1959 on a visit to the capital, “When I noted an impressive statue of King George V standing in a prominent place near the Palace, I could not help wondering whether we in our early days of independence would have tolerated among us a statue of King George III.”
The magnanimous approach that India’s new ruling elite had towards relics of the Raj had a lot to do with which strand of the ruling classes dominated the system of power when we became independent. The nationalist elite consisted of three broad groups – merchants and industrialists, regional big landlords, and the bureaucratic-managerial-intellectual class which manned the apparatuses of the state. Since neither the capitalist class nor the landlords had enough strength to rule on their own, the bureaucratic-managerial elite acquired significant autonomy in directing state power.
This dominance didn’t take place overnight. It took several years of struggle before the bureaucratic-managerial elite could establish themselves at the commanding heights of the polity, economy and civil society. This struggle found its parallel in the Congress party too, in the battles between the government led by Nehru, and the party satraps. In his fight against the more conservative elements within the Congress party, Nehru increasingly recruited apolitical members of the elite to his side. Amongst them were English-educated technocrats, planners, and former ICS officers who were till recently loyal to the British Raj.
The ruling elite saw itself as a ‘welfare-bureaucracy’ that would modernise and develop India from the top. It looked to England for inspiration when it came to liberal values and individual rights, and to the Soviet Union for its egalitarian impulses. It was not surprising that they would be sympathetic to the structure that the colonial state had built, especially its systems of gathering knowledge, enumerating the people, connecting different parts of the country, pushing commerce. It was a naïve anti-colonialism that believed in the empowering mission of Western Enlightenment discourse, and considered the Raj to be a perversion of the true spirit of liberal democracy.
Indira Gandhi was no different. For her, there was both a disjunction and a continuity between the Raj and independent India. So, it was natural for the heroes of the Bangladesh war to be remembered in an unbroken chain of all military heroes who preceded them. What better place for that than India Gate? Even the aesthetic of the Amar Jawan Jyoti, which was inaugurated on Republic Day 1972, is of a piece with the rest of Lutyens Delhi. It is spartan and austere in its design, grand and imposing in its effect.
As I have argued in the past, the hegemony of the bureaucratic-managerial ‘Lutyens’ elite’ has steadily weakened over the past 35 years. Now, under Narendra Modi, we are in the last stages of its ouster from the corridors of power. The mercantile-entrepreneurial elite, which initially played second fiddle to the ‘Lutyens elite’, is now in complete command of the state. It must reimagine the site of power with a new materiality, with a new semiotic of authority.
This includes a new architecture of the state at the centre of Delhi, which is what the Central Vista project is all about. The new ‘Central Vista elite’ must also produce its own nationalistic rituals, its own traditions of showcasing state power. This is why the Amar Jawan Jyoti must be extinguished and ‘merged’ into the new Jyoti at the National War Memorial. It is also why “Abide With Me”, a Christian hymn that was a favourite of Mahatma Gandhi, must be dropped from the list of tunes to be played at the Beating the Retreat ceremony.
The ‘Lutyens elite’, and those who were part of its ecosystem of power, can see their way of life being systematically dismantled around them. They see it as philistines and parvenus attacking the symbols of modern India, much like the Taliban destroyed the Bamiyan Buddha to make a political statement to the world. The old elite knows that these are all surgical strikes to disenfranchise and disempower them, since they are of no use to the propertied classes any more. Their flame has been extinguished.
(Aunindyo Chakravarty was Senior Managing Editor of NDTV’s Hindi and Business news channels.)
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