Now the dust has settled over the merging of the Amar Jawan Jyoti at India Gate with the National War Memorial in New Delhi, even though there are divided opinions over the move. While the debate has died down, one refrain from it still lingers – “the colonial past in the military”.

The Indian armed forces, comprising the army, the navy and the air force, have a long history that goes back almost 300 years in some cases. It takes decades to build cultures and traditions in any armed forces. The world over, every armed force has a unique culture that has evolved from a rich history and heritage.

“Naam-namak-nishan” – name, salt (loyalty), colours – is an axiom central to the Indian Armed Forces. It is written across every cantonment in the country.

For a soldier, the name of his paltan or his regiment is of paramount importance. Come what may, a soldier will never sully the name of his regiment. Equally important is his loyalty to his regiment, which can never be compromised. And a soldier will not think twice about sacrificing his life to protect the “izzat”, or honour, of the colours, which in today’s times is the national flag and the colours of the regiment, which are presented by the president of India.

For a newly inducted soldier, it takes immense training and a rich pride in the heritage of his regiment to be ready to make the supreme sacrifice of his life for the nation. This happens over days and months and years.

A rich past

Many of the regiments in the Indian armed forces date back to the pre-Independence era. They have stellar records in wars both pre-Independence and post. For example, the Bombay Sappers of the Corps of Engineers, to which I belong and which is headquartered in Pune, celebrated their bi-centenary on January 31, 2020. The Bombay Sappers also celebrate Victoria Cross Day on January 31. It commemorates Lieutenant General PS Bhagat being awarded the Victoria Cross, the highest gallantry award in the pre-Independence era, in 1941. It is unimaginable and unthinkable for any Bombay Sapper to forget the rich legacy of over 200 years or to believe the award should be forgotten because it was given before Independence.

The National War Memorial. Pciture credit: Indian Air Force/ Twitter

Can the modern-day 4 Sikh Battalion of the infantry ever forget the bravery of the 21 Sikh soldiers to whom it traces its origins? They died fighting 10,000 Afghani tribesmen in the famed Battle of Saragarhi on September 12, 1897. Can their valour be forgotten just because they fought for a foreign regime?

Can the Poona Horse, an armoured regiment that dates back to 1817 and has won numerous battle honours and awards just erase its history and heritage prior to 15 August 1947?

To those who say that the Indian soldiers who fought wars before 1947 did so for a foreign regime, I would like to say that they were our soldiers, our citizens who fought and many of them gave their lives. Can one ignore his grandfather just because he happened to be born and lived in a part of undivided India that was lost after Partition, and that he crossed over into present-day India in 1947?

Just changes

The customs and traditions of the Indian armed forces are deeply interwoven with their history; segregating one from the other is impossible.

Those who want to make the Indian armed forces forget their past pre-1947 may one day want them to wear kurta-pyjamas or lungis as their uniform as trousers and shirts are of foreign origin. Or someday they would want the armed forces to use their hands and stop using forks and spoons while eating in their dining halls as this cutlery is of foreign origin. There will be no end to this.

There is nothing wrong with change, provided it is needed and arrived at in a transparent manner. But tinkering with the traditions of the armed forces is adventurism best avoided unless there are pressing and justifiable reasons. A soldier’s morale and motivation is linked to these very traditions.

We have now been an independent nation for almost 75 years and if it is felt that there is a need for changes, a committee should be set up to consider them. It should consist of all stakeholders, including veterans and the concerned regimental representatives. The committee should do its work in a fair and a transparent manner and recommend the changes required – in the true spirit of the much-quoted aphorism by Lord Hewart, “Justice should not only be done, but also seen to be done”.

Till then let us not tamper with the traditions of the Indian armed forces. Many a sacrifice is associated with them.

The writer retired from the Indian Army’s Corps of Engineers.

Corrections and clarifications: This story has been edited to reflect the fact that Lieutenant General PS Bhagat was not the first Indian to win a Victoria Cross. That honour goes to Khudadad Khan.