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The Rediff Special/Admiral J G Nadkarni (Retd)

Why Vikrant should become a national monument

Recent reports that the Indian navy is putting up the aircraft carrier Vikrant for auction has come as a shock to all those who fought to preserve the ship as a national museum. And yet, fully knowing India's past record in preserving her heritage, such an expectation was the triumph of hope over experience.

It is now more than two years since the aircraft carrier was decommissioned and plans to preserve it were proposed. Yet even to this day the old hulk continues at its berth in the Naval Dockyard in Bombay, its underwater hull decaying and no nearer to preservation than it was before.

The Maharashtra government, which agreed to fund the preservation, is in dire straits financially and is unlikely to part with any money for the ship, at least in the near future. Let alone the 500-odd million rupees required immediately for the ship's dry-docking.

The central government and the ministry of defence have washed their hands off after 'gifting' the ship to the state government. The ship is in urgent need of drydocking and with the monsoons approaching, once again in danger of sinking at its mooring.

No one seems in the least interested in preserving our heritage. Why are we so callous?

In the national museum in Warsaw, hang three full-size photographs side by side. Below them the stark captions tersely say, 'Warsaw 1939', Warsaw 1945' and 'Warsaw today'.

The first and the last pictures are practically identical while the one in the centre shows a devastated and flattened Warsaw at the end of the Second World War. The Polish people, not particularly affluent at that time, lovingly rebuilt their beloved city exactly as it was before the war.

Today, as far as visual monuments in India are concerned, it is obviously Shiva the Destroyer rather than Vishnu the Preserver who appears to be the ruling deity.

Chhatrapati Shivaji carved out the Maratha empire against all odds. The Marathas ruled large parts of India for over 200 years. Yet for all we have done to preserve their heritage, today's schoolboy can be forgiven for thinking it was all a hoax.

Shivaji was born at Shivneri where two stones on the ground and a broken wall mark his birthplace. He was crowned in the magnificent fort of Raigad where he died shortly after.

The British who realised the importance of symbols better than their Indian subjects, razed every building at Raigad to plinth level after the defeat of the Marathas in 1837. The fort remains in the same condition to this day.

Why are we Indians so apathetic when it comes to preserving our heritage? We are good at giving a hundred excuses why a thing cannot be done, than one reason why it should be done. Old tombs, churches castles, palaces and forts are not the only things preserved.

Every country proud of its maritime history, makes monuments out of its famous ships. Nelson's flagship at the battle of Trafalgar, Victory, is preserved in the United Kingdom. So is the Aurora, which fired the first shot in the Russian revolution at St Petersberg. A large number of battleships and aircraft carriers have been similarly honoured in the United States.

Trincomalee, the world's oldest ship afloat was built in India in 1837. It is now preserved in the UK at Hartlepool. The ship was offered to India for preservation in 1987, but no one showed the slightest interest.

India has a glorious naval tradition. More than a thousand years before Christ, Indian mariners had mastered the art of ocean navigation and were regularly sailing their ships across the Arabian Sea.

Kanhoji Angre, one of India's authentic naval heroes, had his headquarters just a few miles south of Bombay at Khanderi Underi, from where he controlled the entrance to Bombay harbour and levied taxes on East India company's ships entering it.

Yet far from preserving or rebuilding any of his ships, there was not even a monument to Kanhoji until a naval establishment, named after him, decided to erect a bust within its premises. The new port at Nhava Sheva could easily have been named after Angre. But then, we are far more familiar with sycophancy than naval history.

In the past, many occasions arose to save parts of our naval heritage. Yet each time due to apathy, indifference and lack of historical sense we let the moment pass. Feeble efforts to preserve the Dufferin, the merchant training ship which trained hundreds of Indian mariners, were dropped since it was named after a British Viceroy!

The Delhi was the first flagship of the Indian Navy and it served for over 30 years. As HMS Achilles she won Britain victory at sea in the Second World War in 1939. Yet after some pathetic effort at preserving the ship, she was sold for scrap a year after decommissioning.

The same was repeated when India's second cruiser, Mysore, ended her career in 1982. Today in Vikrant we have the last chance of saving a remnant of our glorious past.

Why should we spend millions on keeping alive this huge ship? Because we are proud of our country and its maritime history. Because future generations will want to see our naval tradition, not just hear about it. Because it will inspire hundreds of thousands of our youth in the years to come.

All the books written about the splendour of the Moghuls are not worth one look at the Taj Mahal. A thousand years after they were painted, the murals at Ajanta and Ellora enthrall visitors even today.

Unfortunately, today even the smallest proposal for development along India's 7,000 kilometre coastline invites a protest from the fishermen. Like squatters who have taken over the pavements of Bombay, the 'traditional' (read out-of-date) fishermen have arrogated to themselves the entire coast of India. No new port or harbour can be built anywhere because it will affect the livelihood of the poor fishermen.

How does a ship berthed along a jetty affect fishermen? More fish are killed by the rampant pollution in Mumbai port than the Vikrant ever will. Every ship, naval and commercial, defiantly pumps out its tanks within the harbour and industrial effluents from Thane creek add to the pollution. Studies have shown that fish caught within the harbour contain a lethal percentage of mercury and lead.

As regards aircraft carriers, the Intrepid naval museum, housed in a World War II carrier, is one of the finest museums in the United States.

The immediate requirement thus is to save the Vikrant from the ship breaker's yard and corrosion. The navy and the defence ministry cannot wash their hands off this national monument.

The Vikrant belongs to the entire country. The Indian Navy should be as interested in preserving the ship as the rest of its countrymen. A navy which will spend 45,000 million to buy three frigates from Russia can easily put up 500 million to preserve its pride.

The immediate requirement is to dock the ship, clean its underwater surfaces and give it a coat of preservative. The Indian Navy must pick up the tab for this. They must also preserve the ship for the next two years until the chosen site is ready to receive it.

The Vikrant should be made an election issue. A party which cannot preserve a national monument cannot be expected to preserve the nation itself.

Many years ago, when the Indian Navy could not preserve the Delhi, it was decided to dispose the three gun turrets of the ship. The New Zealand government took one and made it a national monument.

The second is installed at the Indian Army's School of Artillery at Deolali. The Indian Navy decided to preserve the third turret, which unfortunately 'vanished' from the Bombay Naval Dockyard where it was kept. It was believed to be 'eaten by white ants.'

One can only hope that the Vikrant does not vanish before it is preserved.

Admiral J G Nadkarni (retd), former chief of the naval staff, is a frequent contributor to these pages.

Admiral J G Nadkarni


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