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August 17, 2016

It’s Time We Honoured The Unsung Heroes of Our Nation

Text by Madhu Jain. Illustration by Farzana Cooper

Instead of erecting statues of politicians, it’s time we had a Memorial Day to honour the soldiers who have died and continue to die while defending our nation…

Home had never seemed so sweet, the word so resonant, as when the plane touched down in Delhi. We were on a Turkish Airlines flight from Washington DC, with a four-hour stopover in Istanbul. A city I love and have felt at home in. The flight was pleasant, the crew impeccable. But this was the day after the horrific attack at the Ataturk airport in Istanbul. Our children insisted we switch airlines. We didn’t.

We couldn’t.

Fear was a co-passenger on the journey back. And ‘home’ and India had seldom seemed so welcoming. The experience also made me think about what being Indian and India meant to me. There was another reason for these ruminations. When we left the States, where we were visiting our daughter and her family, patriotic fervour was in full drive. Little American flags had been placed before each home in the neighbourhood by, I presume, the local council. July 4th was around the corner.

Red flag
Previously, these flags sprouting overnight towards the end of June had made me a bit uncomfortable. As had the many large star-spangled flags flying outside homes throughout the year — and years. Apparently, this custom became more prevalent after the Vietnam veterans returned home. I took it as a signal of an assertive, in-your-face Americanness — of excluding those who did not belong.

Perhaps I was being oversensitive. The reason for this reaction could have been what happened in Philadelphia when we were there barely a month after the two planes flew into the World Trade Centre towers in 2001. I saw two Sikh men, presumably frightened, who had made their turbans with American flags to demonstrate where their allegiance lay. It was a way of saying ‘I love you America, please spare me’. My sari was also like a red flag. Shouts of ‘Afghani!’ were hurled at me a couple of times. Those were terrifying times: nothing like this had ever happened on American soil. The wars were fought overseas, on other lands.

I no longer view these flags as assertions of rednecked nationality. Nor does the ubiquitous flag-flying feel threatening. All patriots are not xenophobic, though some of them might well be. Watching the Memorial Day celebrations (held on the last Monday of May each year) mitigated most of my apprehensions. It commemorates the men and women who died in military service for the United States. Started after the Civil War to honour the Union soldiers who died during the war, Memorial Day has become increasingly important. And, highly emotive. Actors Gary Sinise (CSI.NY) and Joe Mantegna co-hosted the 2016 National Memorial Day Concert in front of Capitol Hill for the 11th time this year. The Gary Sinise Foundation helps soldiers returning to civilian life overcome the physical, emotional and psychological challenges they usually face.

Which brings me to the point of this column: it’s time we had a Memorial Day to honour the soldiers who died and continue to die while defending India. Well over two million Indian soldiers served in the British Indian Army in Europe and in South East Asia during World War II, of which over 90,000 lost their lives. Nearly 1.3 million soldiers fought for the British Indian Army in World War I: over 60,000 died there. There are memorials for Indian soldiers in Neuve Chapelle in France and in several places in Italy, including the Sangro River War Cemetery, which also has a cremation memorial.

And still, there is no National War Memorial in India.

The India Gate war memorial was built by the British in 1931 to honour the Indian soldiers who had died while serving the British Army. Our political leaders make their way ever so often to India Gate to honour the soldiers who sacrificed their lives in the many wars which have taken place with our neighbours after India shook off its colonial yoke in 1947.

Unsung heroes
It is only after the much-publicised centenary of World War I two years ago, that we turned our attention to the Indians who lost their lives fighting in foreign lands. There is a dearth of memoirs and books written by Indians — or even films made — about our involvement in the two world wars. A trickle has just begun. Instead of erecting statues of politicians (the bigger and shinier the better) all over the country, shouldn’t we be putting up memorials to the mostly unknown and unsung heroes? Not to speak of those who are dying in Kargil and elsewhere even as I write.

Flags flying from white clapboard houses in Washington DC as well as in neighbouring states may appear a bit frightening to tourists and to those who are not American. Perhaps even more so today, when the presumptive Republican Party presidential candidate Donald Trump does not mince words about sending immigrants from certain regions back to where they came from.

Yet, I wonder if it is really such a bad thing if done in the right spirit — one of honouring dead soldiers and veterans of war. It is a tricky issue: the line between patriotism and xenophobia is thin, and often blurry. One needs to tread carefully. Patriotism, like religion, shouldn’t be shouted out loud from rooftops. Why can’t we keep it quiet — and personal?

As for our national anthem: I have often wondered why it is played before every film in Mumbai but not in Delhi….

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