Shortly before 7:30 a.m. Friday, amid the crowd gathered in Chandni Chowk for Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s Independence Day speech, four Delhi Police officers approached Chakradhar Singh Patel and demanded to search his white carrying bag. Patel, a 32-year-old farmer from Chhattisgarh, complied, emptying the bag’s contents — a bottle of water, snacks and a few newspapers — into the street while an officer scanned it with a hand-held metal detector.
Standing nearby, Vibhor Sharma, 17, nodded his approval.
“There is so much chance of terrorism, of bomb blasts,” said Sharma, who moved from his native Uttar Pradesh to Delhi three months ago. “In UP, you can’t get this type of protection.”
Looking up at the roofs of the buildings lining the street, he pointed out further evidence of the extensive police presence: the flashes of khaki worn by officers clutching binoculars, walkie-talkies and guns.
Satyendra Nath, 22, also in the crowd, said Delhiites welcome signs of ramped-up security during large-scale gatherings. He hoped the prime minister would address the issue of terrorism directly in his speech.
Though it seemed a stark topic for a celebration, the small talk along Chandni Chowk proved consistent with the tenor of the morning. From the security precautions to the speech itself, India’s Independence Day appeared to be a more sobering and substantive occasion than its American cousin, the Fourth of July.
My most enduring memories of the Fourth involve long nights spent outdoors in suburban Washington State, during which my family would join our neighbours in setting off fireworks purchased from the nearby Native American reservation. An ambitious holiday meant going to see a movie. We did not wake up at 4 a.m. to go hear a politician speak, in part because few were speaking. (One Independence Day I found myself at the Esplanade in Boston, a city that was a hotbed of anti-British activity in the run-up to the Revolutionary War. Instead of a politician, the main attraction was Cyndi Lauper, a pop singer best known for her 1983 hit “Girls Just Want to Have Fun.”)
In India, the prime minister delivers an Independence Day speech that rivals in significance America’s State of the Union. And the spectators Friday demonstrated a genuine interest in its content, listing topics — the nuclear deal, terrorism, violence in Jammu and Kashmir – they hoped he would broach.
A look at the defining documents of the two independence celebrations, the U.S. Declaration of Independence and Nehru’s “Tryst with Destiny” speech, offers some insight into why the Indian holiday presents a better opportunity to engage in, rather than detach from, discussions of current affairs.
Unlike the Declaration, which is essentially a laundry list of wrongs perpetrated by the British, Nehru’s speech focuses on future challenges and how to meet them: “We have hard work ahead. There is no resting for any one of us till we redeem our pledge in full, till we make all the people of India what destiny intended them to be.”