An Indian army contingent rehearses for Indian Republic Day parade along Rajpath in New Delhi. (MONEY SHARMA/AFP/Getty Images)
Snapshot
  • The Republic Day celebrations are India’s pride and the current format is outstanding until someone can prove that a better option with bang for the buck exists, and can be executed.

India celebrates the anniversary of its Republic Day every year on 26 January. It’s the day when the Constitution of India was formally adopted and the transition from being an independent dominion under the British Commonwealth to an independent republic took effect. While celebrations of this day took place from 1950 to 1954 in different parts of Delhi, it was on Republic Day 1955 that the format of the current parade was adopted. It is well known that the parade is the pride of India and the celebrations take place from 26 January with the parade to 29 January, when the ceremonies close with the Beating Retreat at the Vijay Chowk. The latter is a unique spectacle, when the massed bands of the three services participate in a traditional band display in a grand setting with the South and North Blocks and the Rashtrapati Bhavan in the backdrop.

Nothing controversial about this; in fact there is everything to be proud of. Yet every other year question marks are raised in cynical circles about the parade and the very ‘military flavour’ that it projects. These objections and observations are also laid to rest every year. However, this year just a few objections have emerged, but they assume greater significance due to the rising tide of analyses in the last few months about the alleged increasing influence of the military in national decision making. The counter analyses, which are also written each year, therefore need to build on this factor and ascertain the veracity of the claims by those who are detractors of the current format of the Republic Day parade, and the allegations against India’s military.

The four days from 26 to 29 January every year comprise three major events, which are organised and coordinated by India’s Armed Forces, with military flavour of different shades and ratio. First is the parade itself. It is largely the responsibility of the Indian Army Headquarters, Delhi Area and the Ceremonials and Welfare Directorate. The parade is led by the General Officer Commanding (GOC) Delhi Area, but preceded by the laying of wreaths at Amar Jawan Jyoti, the ceremonial arrival of the President of India, led by the President’s bodyguard, an elite horse cavalry unit of the Army and the welcome to the chief guest, a foreign dignitary (this year the Crown Prince of Abu Dhabi).

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Marching contingents of the three services and roll past by mounted columns of weaponry, models of latest ships/aircraft and some recent achievements of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), for instance, the indigenous Dhanush gun will be on display this year, form the initial highlights. This is followed by contingents of the Central Armed Police Forces including the Border Security Force’s popular camel contingents, National Cadet Corps (NCC) and school children. The second half of the parade comprises cultural tableaux, display of regional dance forms and projection of achievements of some specific government departments such as Railways, horticulture or environment. The third part is the one most anticipated by the public; the flypast by the Indian Air Force transport and fighter aircraft (the Tejas will be on display this year).

The parade in effect is a mix of a projection of military might, achievements in science and technology, important government initiatives, such as Make in India and Swachh Bharat Abhiyan, display of second and third lines of physical security and youth power, all mixed with the flavour of martial music and rhythmic Indian regional dances in a celebratory environment – the true ‘feel good’ which people of every self-respecting nation must experience from time to time.

The second event is the Prime Minister’s NCC rally, where besides a parade, the event brings together young people from across the country to stay and work together for a few days in preparation for the event. The NCC cadets then put up a display of cultural activities. The third is the iconic Beating Retreat, considered by many as the flagship event of the celebrations, where the three services play military bands of different types. There has been much innovation in the field of martial music, an essential aspect of military culture and tradition. A very Indian flavour has been adopted in the composition of most martial tunes and a synthesis of Indian and western instruments, is also blended together. Some gems of the past remain a part of the ceremony, such as Mahatma Gandhi’s favourite hymn – ‘Abide with Me’.

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There is a defining excitement in the air, as people from many parts of India descend on Delhi to witness at least the parade, if not the other activities. Since flag-hoisting ceremonies are held nationwide at educational institutions, and now even at condominiums and housing societies, these are usually followed by community watching of the Republic Day parade on large screens put up for that purpose. If there is anything the public of India loves, it is a good military spectacle. I speak all over India at events where I try and enhance public knowledge on national security, and my experience only confirms each time that the public does not get enough of its military. The entire spectacle of the parade has something for everyone. It is a knowledge enhancer and motivator.

A nation as diverse as ours needs droves of self-esteem to keep the patriotic fervor at the right level. The weaponry on display, the grandeur of military uniforms, the precision of marching, motivating martial music of the military bands, all balanced by the cultural troupes, the science and technology achievements and school children makes for a heady theme to relate to. Foreigners too, enjoy the four-day spectacle and diplomats and tourists get ‘all of India’ at one time.

So what are the objections to this format of celebration? Some feel it is unnecessary expenditure, which the nation can’t afford. National self-esteem at the cost of a few hundred crores is hardly a rational objection. Yes, Delhi has a few administrative problems on a few days of January every year; traffic regulations, the India Gate area being blocked off and cascading traffic blocks in other areas too. There are others who say that the format is jaded and needs infusion of some innovative ideas. I can dare to say that if national opinion polls are held about the popularity of the current format of the parade and other celebrations, these are going to come out rather popular.

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The real objection is by a class of people who think that India is getting far too militaristic; that the uniform is beginning to assert beyond acceptable norms; that India’s responses in the security realm bear the stamp of military advice more than what is necessary. Such observations emerge from ideas that a minority of people carry that the military has been asserting itself in formulating the Jammu and Kashmir strategy and on the basis of its insistence, the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA 1990) could not be removed from selected areas.

The One Rank One Pension (OROP) campaign appears to have given an erroneous impression. Perhaps it has been deliberately conjectured to project that the military was being given undeserved concessions and that conceding these was symbolic of the rising voice of soldiers, which was dangerous for Indian democracy. Considering the fact that the Indian military was kept emasculated during the first 15 years of the Republic and that hierarchically it has progressively lost its position in the national pecking order over the last 70 years, there cannot be too much in these arguments. In fact that is the reason the arguments appear mischievous, immature and shorn of any rationale. Since the military is also hell bent on revealing how it was virtually duped on OROP in 1973, just after the Field Marshal demitted office, when military pensions were reduced from 70 to 50 per cent of basic pay and that of the civil services was increased from 30 to 50 per cent, it appears to worry these circles. A firming up of military resolve to robustly project the issues of downgrading in protocol, Seventh Pay Commission inconsistencies and OROP has given opportunity to some quarters to paint it black. Taking it into the security realm, the issues related to AFSPA, protection extended to military personnel for alleged rights violations and pointing of fingers on issues of discipline and administration, are all taken together to attempt to marginalise an institution, which bears the fullest confidence of the people.

The Republic Day parade and the Beating Retreat ceremony could always do with greater infusion of innovations and technology, but the sheer physical flavour of the presence of the uniform has to remain. Old world charm cannot be removed with people as tradition bound as those of India. The expenditure of organisation of the events is kept minimal because of the resources the services provide; their manpower is focused to achieve the precision and the grandeur. No doubt India has seen well-organised events but we also know what the impact of the Commonwealth Games was on Indian politics and the scope such events provide for corruption. A time-tested agency given the responsibility, with the correct balance of themes and guaranteed to provide everything the nation is looking for, is not something to reject for the sake of innovation, political point scoring or simply cussedness.

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The Republic Day celebrations are India’s pride and the current format is outstanding until someone can prove that a better option with bang for the buck exists, and can be executed.

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