Thousands gathered in New Delhi amid tight security on Tuesday for the 67th Republic Day parade, a pomp-filled spectacle of military might featuring camels and daredevil stunt riders, with French President Francois Hollande the chief guest.
For the first time, a contingent from the French 35th Infantry Regiment was given the honour of leading the marching contingents and it performed with panache, preceded by a pipes and drums band and saluting in a rather atypical style with the right hand held straight across the chest.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited Hollande as chief guest in a show of solidarity with France after Islamist attacks in Paris last November killed 130 — recalling a 2008 assault on Mumbai that killed 166.
The two leaders agreed in talks on Monday to deepen cooperation on counter-terrorism in the wake of the Paris attacks and a deadly siege this month on the Indian Air Force Pathankot base near the Pakistan border.
The mood on Tuesday was more celebratory, with Modi -- sporting a gold turban that rivalled the spectacular military headgear on display -- and Hollande chatting as they sat side by side in a bulletproof glass enclosure.
An estimated 10,000 spectators braved thick smog and air quality levels classified as hazardous on the US embassy website to watch the display.
The celebrations began with PM Modi driving to the Amar Jawan Jyoti memorial to the Unknown Soldier at India Gate and laying a wreath in honour of the countless Indian soldiers who have died in battles since World War I.
Modi then drove up to the saluting base to receive President Pranab Mukherjee and Hollande.
The President’s Bodyguard presented the national salute, the tricolour was unfurled and the national anthem was played to set the tone for a rather poignant moment - the posthumous presentation of the Ashok Chakra, the country’s highest gallantry award in peacetime. It was presented this year to the widow of Lance Naik Mohan Nath Goswami of the Parachute Regiment, who laid down his life while fighting terrorists in the Kashmir Valley last September.
The French apart, there was much that was different this time around. The marching contingents were fewer, as were the massed bands.
Then, instead of a marching continent of ex-servicemen, there was a tableau dedicated to them in the first part of the parade, an army dog squad with handlers made an appearance after 26 years, and the camel-mounted troopers of the Border Security Force made up the rear element of the parade’s military element.
In another break with tradition, the young recipients of the National Awards for Bravery came up towards the end, followed by the children’s pageant, a daredevil motorcycle display by the Corps of Signals, and a grand flypast by fighters, heavy-lift transports and helicopters of the Indian Air Force.
Vice-President Hamid Ansari, the three service chiefs, Congress president Sonia Gandhi, cabinet ministers, a host of dignitaries and a group of women achievers seated in a special enclosure were on hand to witness the hour-and-half long parade.
The parade, which also features colourful floats showcasing the culture of the country’s states, is the highlight of annual celebrations of the birth of modern India.
It was the fifth time a French president has been chief guest, the biggest honour India can bestow on a foreign leader.
Later on Tuesday, Hollande will meet Congress chief Sonia Gandhi before ending a three-day official visit that began in Chandigarh.