In November 2015, an Indian journalist who had flown down from Delhi to cover Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s UK visit asked why several people in London had a red flower (remembrance poppy) on their coats and jackets. Overhearing this, an English lady at the Wembley stadium couldn’t stop herself intervening: “Do you not know, it is for the Remembrance Day.”
The lady knew her history well enough to add that Remembrance Day is marked even in the Commonwealth. It was as much a lesson in history as in the culture of marking historical events. In India, it is usually difficult to imagine both going together. The poppy, actually an artificial flower pin, is a symbol of remembrance for those who died in the First World War. Though it originated in the landscape of the First World War it is worn to commemorate military personnel in later conflicts as well, and used for fundraising.
By wearing the poppy on their clothes, the people get to convey their respect sans state or ceremonial fanfare. The wearing of a poppy is deeply personal, and yet very much part of a collective. Also sold are white poppies, symbolising peace without violence and purple poppies which signify the animals killed in conflict. The poppies are traditionally taken off on Armistice Day (11 November) or on Remembrance (second) Sunday of November, whichever is later.
When ten terrorists travelling from Pakistan carried out the horrific and synchronised terror attack in Mumbai in November 2008, it brought out the chinks in our security armour. Now, 13 years later, it has also exposed our collective failure to suitably memorialise the attack. An attack of such a magnitude could have been used as a focal point to illustrate the multiple bombings, violence and terror attacks that urban India has faced.
It was not India’s 9/11, it was India’s 26/11. Mumbai is India’s financial capital and also the country’s most cosmopolitan city. During colonial times the city was also the biggest site of indigenous capitalism. The horrendous attack was an assault on the psyche of modern India, as the city was converted into a conflict-ridden border outpost. Nationals of sixteen countries were among the 166 killed, while the assailants took orders from their handlers in Pakistan.
Yet apart from few functions in some resident associations and by political/social organisations, the 26/11 memorial being visited by the Governor and ministers, and dwindling focus in the media with each passing year, there is no commemoration of the attack that makes it likely it would hold the imagination of the people in the near future. Driven by the never-give-up stance, and the city never sleeps mode, it seems the gruesome reality of this attack will be a likely casualty of memory, overtaken by dreams of Bollywood, big money, and social mobility that the city offers.
But if Remembrance Day could take root in Britain where conscription deeply divided the country, and was only grudgingly passed by the Parliament at the height of war, why can’t the 2008 Mumbai terror attack spawn its own Remembrance Day in India?
It is beyond the remit of this column to explain the reasons, but the general apathy to history and a reluctance to openly deal with violence and tragedies could be a starting point. How do we explain that the country’s first Partition Museum came into existence decades after its occurrence, when the numbers of those directly affected dwindled drastically, leaving so much undocumented?
In 2009, when Henry Patch, the last surviving combat soldier of the First World War, died aged 111 years, there was a collective sigh in Britain that the First World War had passed from living memory into history. But Remembrance Day services and the wearing of poppy has ensured that it will continue to live in the collective memory of the nation.
Yes, 26/11 was no world war, but neither was 9/11. But both marked the fruition of terror templates that mocked the world order. The latter did lead to a so-called war on terror, leaving a problematic legacy; but the former it seems apart from relooking at security aspects and diplomatic manoeuvrings, will turn a pale reminder of the horrendous tragedy much before the case even finds a closure.
The ten terrorists, to inflict terror, arrived in inflatable dinghies taking the Karachi-Mumbai Sea route that was once a busy civilian and commercial transport route. In 1944, a freighter SS Fort Stikine that took the same route had reached Bombay (now Mumbai) on April 14, after its last stop at Karachi on April 9. On April 14, it caught fire at Victoria dock while waiting to be unloaded of its cargo, which included gold, cotton and explosives, among other things. Two giant blasts killed over 1,000 and 3,000 people were injured. The impact of the blast was felt in different parts of the city. It’s now reduced to occasional stories on how once gold rained in Bombay! Meanwhile, children in Britain continue to learn about the 1666 Great Fire of London.
Also the 26/11 terror attacks must provide the many victims – both local and international, and many others who have over the years moved locations and lived with physical and mental scars, an avenue to express their grief. A panel discussion organised by the Indian High Commission in London to remember the martyrs of 26/11, provided some a platform to share their experiences and others to join in, but also highlighted the dearth of avenues to do so.
A simple pin, India’s very own symbol of Remembrance, could go a long way in creating a culture where everyone – survivors and victim’s families, politicians and commoners, old and young, Indians and foreigners – can find an outlet to express their collective grief and keep the memory and history of 26/11 alive.