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Why PM’s Independence Day speech should move out of Delhi

columns Updated: Jan 25, 2017 11:02 IST
Narendra Modi

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the Red Fort on the occasion of 69th Independence Day celebrations in New Delhi. Neither the national capital nor Delhi’s Red Fort have any special place in it beyond tradition. Freedom belongs equally to residents of the smallest village in Meghalaya or Kerala. (Ajay Aggarwal/HT)

There is a big difference in the way 15th August and 26th January are celebrated. The former is led by the Prime Minister’s speech from the ramparts of Delhi’s Red Fort while the latter by a grand military parade on Raj Path overseen by the President. Most people accept this difference as merely the artifact of tradition but the ceremonies carry important symbolism. In this column I suggest an innovation that would make the symbolism more appropriate and meaningful.

As all Indians are aware, Republic Day commemorates the date on which the Indian Constitution came into effect. In other words, it is a celebration of the Indian State and the power that resides in it by virtue of the Constitution. The growling Mauryan lions, our State emblem, reflect this power. It is appropriate, therefore, that Republic Day celebrations are led by military parades on Raj Path and that the President, as head of the Republic, presides over the event. It is a “top-down” show of strength and the national capital is the obvious place from which the celebrations are led.

Independence Day, in contrast, is a commemoration of the day we became free of British rule. By its very nature, it is a “bottom-up” celebration of freedom and belongs to the people rather than the Indian State. Therefore, the Prime Minister, as representative of the people, leads the celebrations with a speech. However, note that neither the national capital nor Delhi’s Red Fort have any special place in it beyond tradition. Freedom belongs equally to residents of the smallest village in Meghalaya or Kerala. This is why the symbolic importance of Independence Day would be greatly enhanced if the Prime Minister would deliver his annual speech from a different location every year.

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There are many locations across India that have strong historical associations with the idea of freedom. Here are a few suggestions that could be considered:

Chittaurgarh, Rajasthan: Few places on earth have a history of such heroic resistance against external aggression. The fort was sacked three times (1303 by Alauddin Khilji, 1535 by Bahadur Shah & 1567 by Akbar) and on each occasion it was defended to the last man. Each time, the women chose to commit mass-suicide rather than live in slavery and dishonour. Even after the fall of the fort, the people of Mewar kept up the resistance in the surrounding Aravali hills.

Jhansi, UP: This town and its fort will forever be linked to the brave resistance of Rani Lakshmibai to British domination. Given how the events of 1857-58 are immortalized in poetry and song, would it not be appropriate if Prime Minister Modi delivered this year’s speech from the same spot where the young queen is said to have leapt off the fort’s ramparts in order to escape the siege?

Colachel, TN: This is the coastal town where Martanda Varma, ruler of the tiny kingdom of Venad (later Travancore) decisively defeated the Dutch East India Company in 1741. This was a major feat as the Dutch were then the world’s leading maritime power and controlled what are now South Africa, Indonesia and Sri Lanka. The Dutch never recovered and went into decline. No Asian would again defeat a European power decisively till the Japanese navy defeated the Russians at the Battle of Tsushima in 1905. A commemorative column still stands at the spot where Martanda Varma accepted Dutch surrender.

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Saraighat, Assam: Indian history is full of invasions from the north-west but none from the north-east. For this we should thank the Assamese and the Manipuri who put up extraordinary resistance to foreign marauders such as the Burmese. Even when foreign invaders from the north-west managed to reach Assam, they too were defeated. Bakhtiyar Khilji, who sacked Nalanda and conquered Bengal, was soundly defeated by the Assamese. Similarly, when Aurangzeb sent a large army to subdue the Assamese in 1671, Ahom general Lachit Borphukan enticed the Mughals into a naval battle on the Brahmaputra and sank their fleet. This battle took place at Saraighat, not far from modern Guwahati.

Cellular Jail, Andaman & Nicobar Islands (Kala Pani) : In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the British used the Cellular Jail in Port Blair to imprison those whom it considered the greatest threats to continuation of colonial rule. Its inmates included the Maulvi Liaquat Ali, the Savarkar brothers, Sachindra Nath Sanyal, Barindra Ghosh and many others.

The above list contains mere suggestions and readers are free to add others. Of course, the Prime Minister may return to the Red Fort from time to time. The main point is that Independence Day does not belong exclusively to Delhi and should be shared across India. This would fit the spirit of freedom much better than the current ritual.