War of words over a memorial in northeast India

War of words over a memorial in northeast India

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By Nava Thakuria
A near-completion monument in the heart of Guwahati city of northeast India has emerged as an issue of un-ending debates among Assamese academician, writer, journalist and ex-service personalities. While a section of prominent citizens have raised voices to halt the construction process of the memorial on northern bank of Dighalipukhuri (literary meaning long pond), the ex-armed forces personnel and a group of patriotic people come strongly in favour of the monument.
The citizen’s forum, led by eminent Assamese academician Dr Hiren Gohain, has already knocked the door of Gauhati High Court through a PIL, following which the court directed the authority ‘to maintain status quo on any construction activities around Dighalipukhuri area’.

war.memorial model

war.memorial model

The forum, which had earlier organized two demonstrations on the bank of the historic pond with limited participants, argued that ‘it was not objecting to the construction of a suitable war memorial in honour of the soldiers’ who laid down their lives for the nation, but only the monument site on Dighalipukhuri premises.
‘Dighalipukhuri has not only been a landmark of Guwahati from its growth as a modern town in the late 19th century, but it dates back from ancient times as part of a central water body of capital cities of various dynasties of the Kamrupa kingdom. The public notice placed there on its historic importance by the Government of Assam itself mentions that archaeological remains from the 2nd century AD had been found on that site,’ said the forum.
In a recent press meet, organized at Guwahati Press Club, Dr Gohain pointed out that the 4.5-hectare tank is ‘an ancient and historic water-body, not to mention its aesthetic worth and the role it plays in bestowing upon the city a natural ambience’. The construction of the memorial would affect the ecology of the pond and also destroy its incoherent link between past and present. Under no circumstances would the citizens of Guwahati favour any desecration of the tank, asserted the former professor of Gauhati University.
However, All Assam Ex-Servicemen Welfare Association and Patriotic People’s Front Assam (PPFA) have ridiculed the argument of the citizen’s forum that the proposed monument would destroy the beauty and heritage of  Dighalipukhuri. Both the organizations also appealed
to the forum ‘not to create further hinders on the completion of the State-level war memorial inside the pre-historic city’.
Rejecting the logic that the project would distort the heritage appeal, aesthetic beauty and ecological sanctity of Dighalipukhuri, Colonel  (retired) Rabin Das, secretary of the ex-servicemen association argued that the war memorial would be constructed on the available vacant land over the tank’ northern bank. The construction process is guided in such a way that he water body never gets disturbed and cutting trees was also avoided, added Das.
The war (or martyr’s) memorial, which was initiated by the Rajya Sainik Board (Assam), has been financed by Assam government.  The foundation stone of around rupees 100 million budget project was laid on 18 May 2015 by none other than State chief minister Tarun Gogoi.
Acclaimed Assamese sculptor Biren Singha has designed the statues and other artifacts for the project.
The memorial is designed to comprise the statues of Ahom General Lachit Barphukan with many other soldiers- who fought the  1671 Battle of Saraighat (over might river Brahmaputra), an Amar Jawan Jyoti reverse rifle with a helmet on top, an uniformed soldier with his rifle reverse arm salute and also relief panels depicting iconic battle scenes from pre & post independent India.
Regarding the choice of the location, Commodore (retired) Kamalesh Chandra  Choudhury, who is also the  secretary of Rajya Sainik Board (Assam), highlighted that the Dighalipukhuri played an immense role in the famous naval battle of Saraighat and hence it is the most appropriate place for a war memorial in the whole of Assam.
‘Earlier the northern bank of the pond was occupied by a disused fishery office of Assam government with a storehouse making the locality a filthy dumping site. Moreover, a restaurant was also constructed on the western bank of Dighalipukhuri, but it did not inspire anybody to raise voices.  The proposed memorial has been constructed with all precautions on the government land with the government fund only,’ added Choudhury.
He also asserted that as Assam is yet to have a State-level war memorial, the coming-up project at Dighalipukhuri comprising green lawns, decorative trees, flower beds along with the public viewing of a Vijayanta tank and a Mig 27 to motivate the young generation would be a fitting tribute to the known & unknown martyrs & heroes, who had sacrificed their lives for the motherland.
Lately the ex-servicemen had organized a gorgeous public rally on the southern bank of Dighalipukhuri, where prominent citizens and many senior journalists joined in the chorus to expedite the construction works of the memorial. The 13 January rally also urged Assam CM Gogoi to allow the citizens in general and ex-servicemen fraternity in particular to lay wreaths on the memorial at Dighalipukhuri on the forthcoming Republic Day (26 January).
Addressing the rally, Nagarik Surakshya Samity president Kailash Sarma extended his support for the memorial. The outspoken activist argued that the monument would inspire the younger generations and foster the feeling of patriotism. It will always remind us of the great sacrifices made by our martyrs, who laid down their lives to protect the country, he stated.
The situation turned murky when the  banned United Liberation Front of Asom (Independent) came out with a statement that it would not allow any war memorial in Assam, as it would only glorify the Indian armed forces. The armed outfit claimed that  the Indian government was
‘forcefully invading Assam’ and hence it would continue opposing the project.
Earlier, the patriotic people’s front, in a recent statement issued by Rupam arua,  Jagadindra Raychoudhury, Pramod Kalita, Mrinal Talukder, Girindra Karji, Tarali Chakrabarty etc,  reiterated that a war or martyr’s memorial in the city was a long standing demand from the
patriotic people of the alienated region and hence the project must not get suffered at the final stage of construction. The front additionally urged the authority as well as the political parties &
civil society groups to avoid using the southern bank of Dighalipukhuri as a venue for frequent protest-demonstrations.
(Nava Thakuria is a senior Indian journalist based in Guwahati Assam)

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