The National War Memorial was inaugurated on February 25 in New Delhi by the prime minister, without the august presence of the President of India, the supreme commander of the armed forces. This is shocking, unfortunate and unacceptable.

It is enshrined in Article 53 of the Constitution that ‘supreme command of the Defence Forces of the Union shall be vested in the President’. So when the long-pending National War Memorial was finally inaugurated, with solemnity marked by all-faith prayers and grateful remembrance of the valour and sacrifice of our soldiers in times of war and peace, the majesty of the event would have been greatly enhanced by the presence of the President, who is the first citizen of our Republic.

For the personnel of the armed forces representing all ranks, the President of India representing the State is the supreme commander. It is the President and not the prime minister who confers medals and battle honours on defence personnel, at investiture ceremonies conducted in Rashtrapati Bhavan. It is the President who takes the salute in the marchpast along Raj Path on Republic Day every year. And it is the President who, on that historic occasion, awards battle honours like the Param Vir Chakra and the Ashok Chakra to defence personnel, on the strength of their excellence in defending our nation.

So how can it be that the President of India is excluded from the inauguration of the National War Memorial, instituted to celebrate the glorious tradition of service and sacrifice of the defence forces?

In omitting to invite the President to the inauguration, this government is trying to take credit for a soldiers’ memorial, at the cost of belittling the commander of the armed forces.

It is often said that India’s foreign policy is now entirely PMO-driven, as the Foreign Minister is hardly visible. The documents recently published in The Hindu concerning the Rafale deal give the unmistakable impression that defence acquisition is also being driven by the PMO.

But when it comes to the issue of honouring the defence forces, it should and must be beyond partisan interests. The best way to ensure this, to elevate it above the narrow considerations of party affiliation, is to involve the President of India, who is above party politics, and whom the Constitution declares is head of the armed forces.

When assuming office on July 25, 1997 former President of India the late K.R.Narayanan very thoughtfully said in his speech that ‘as President of India it will be my endeavour to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution in every respect, including the provision that India will “promote international peace and security”.

‘Likewise, it will be my privilege as Supreme Commander of the Armed Forces to reflect the nation's pride in the competence and professionalism of our armed forces. By guarding our frontiers it is they who make possible the progress within.

‘I shall endeavour do all these with one goal, one prayer, that India the land of many faiths, languages and cultures may be great, that India may become prosperous sharing its prosperity with all its sons and daughters in the spirit of equality and fraternity, and justice, social, economic and political.’

Wise words indeed. The role of their Supreme Commander in promoting peace and fraternity and reflecting on the pride of the defence forces is of crucial significance for our trying times, where nationalism is used to promote jingoism and hatred for people professing a particular faith.

In barring the President of India from this solemn event, the government has lost a historic occasion, for the occupant of the highest office of our Republic to ‘reflect the nation’s pride in the competence and professionalism of our armed forces’, and to underline the memorial’s larger significance for forging fraternity and solidarity, at a time when some leaders with the mandate to govern are polarizing society and polity with impunity, and taking forward the cause of muscular and exclusive nationalism contrary to the ethos of the freedom struggle.

The government’s action is particularly unfortunate at this juncture, as the nation mourns the loss of over 40 soldiers of the paramilitary forces, and is united in facing the challenge by invoking creative nationalism: not the destructive nationalism to which certain leaders have given free rein.

The inauguration of the National War Memorial required a mature approach above petty political considerations. The President of India would have been eminently worthy of upholding this in true spirit. Sadly, the government of the day declined to invite the President. In the process, it must be said, the highest institution of our Republic was made to suffer erosion and a decline in stature.

S.N.Sahu served as officer on special duty and press secretary to President of India the late K.R.Narayanan, and was director in the Prime Minister's Office and joint secretary in the Rajya Sabha Secretariat.