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R-Day parade: Out of step?

No liberal democracy recalls the day of its birth by instructing soldiers in uniform to parade, writes Vir Sanghvi.

india Updated: Jan 22, 2006 01:57 IST

I don't know if you have noticed but over the last four years or so, the run-up to the Republic Day parade is always marked by a certain amount of disgruntled muttering. This year has been no exception. TV channels have focused on how tough the preparations are on the small children who are traditional participants in the parade. On Friday, The Times of India asked, ‘R-Day Parade: Is it in step with the times?’ And there are always the traditional think-pieces questioning the martial nature of our Republic Day celebrations.

My own view, so far, has been ambivalent — but that probably says more about me than it does about the parade.

When I was a child growing up in Bombay, I used to urge my parents to take me to Delhi on Republic Day so I could get to see the parade. (There was no live TV coverage in those days). But later, in my adolescence, I began to adopt a then trendy disdain for the display of military strength that characterised the parade.

And that, broadly, is where I have been at, ever since. I have no strong views about the parade but, equally, I do not usually bother to watch it on television.

Last week, I finally sat down and tried to make up my mind: am I in favour of the parade or against it?

I have to say that the anti-parade arguments come more easily to me. I still have difficulty in understanding why we would celebrate the birth of the Indian republic by putting our tanks and missiles on display. As far as I can tell, no liberal democracy recalls the day of its birth by instructing soldiers in uniform to parade through the centre of the Capital. That sort of celebration is more suited to military dictatorships, Ruritanian monarchies, and totalitarian states. (In China, for instance, they don’t just parade tanks through Tiananmen Square in the centre of Beijing; they also use them to rid the area of democracy-loving students.)

Moreover, parades are usually meant to mark the anniversaries of famous military victories. But the whole point of India’s struggle for freedom was that it was almost entirely non-violent.

The army played no role in driving the British out (actually the Indian army was commanded by the Brits during that period). So how is a military celebration relevant to a celebration of the greatest non-violent struggle known to history?

Besides, there was another problem. When I was a child, I had great difficulty comprehending what Republic Day was about anyway. Independence Day was meant to recall the day on which we got rid of the British and became a free nation. So just what did Republic Day represent?

When my teachers told me that it was the day on which India adopted the Constitution and decided that we were not just an independent democracy but were actually a republic, my first reaction was: “Huh?”

I have tried, in the intervening years, to understand why this should be such an epochal event, important enough to be treated on par with the anniversary of the day on which we sent the Brits packing, signalled the end of the empire and established ourselves as an independent country.

And frankly, at many levels, my response is still: “Huh?”

Then, of course, there’s the parade itself. On the few occasions when I have watched it on TV, I have found it tacky beyond belief. Once you are through with the marching-in-time, the weapons displays, and the salutes, you are left with some incredibly bad taste floats of the kind that would shame a small-town secondary school’s annual day celebrations. There are embarrassingly trite displays of public dancing and hundreds of bemused small children are forced to participate in so-called cultural activities. As a celebration of all the things that make up today’s Indian nation, the parade is a sarkari anachronism.

Plus, there’s the other stuff that the papers have been complaining about all week. Jasdev Singh, who has been the voice of the parade since 1962, told the Times that “spontaneous public participation” had declined. (He also mourned the absence of the President’s gold buggy which, I am less sure, is as big a tragedy as he seems to think). Then, there’s the usual criticism of why only a few states get to send tableaux. (My own response, on the other hand, is: Oh my God! Can you imagine even more bloody tableaux?) And each year, the Chief Guests get dodgier and dodgier. This year we are stuck with the King of Saudi Arabia, representing an unelected and undemocratic regime whose chief contribution to the world has been to enrich the casinos and fleshpots of Europe while simultaneously financing Islamic extremism around the world and fondling the Pakistani state.

And yet, despite all of this, I have to say that, on reflection, I am not still not convinced that the parade is — all things considered — such a bad idea.

I recognise that it is an anachronism — but it is also an anachronism drawn from a more innocent, more idealistic era, when there was still some doubt if the great democratic experiment that is India would survive.

We live now in cynical times. More and more Indians associate government, politics and public life with sleaze, corruption and venality. Nearly all the things we admire about India — our new-found prosperity, the global triumph of our popular culture and our success in the new industries of the 21st Century — emerge out of private initiative. Rarely, if ever, do we give the Indian State any credit for any of our country’s successes.

The Republic Day parade, despite its cheerful, low-rent tackiness, represents a rare occasion when Indians of all classes — and especially the educated middle class — abandon their cynicism and feel a strong surge of patriotic sentiment about a state-run activity. In some ways, it reminds me of the idealism of the early years of ‘nation-building’. No matter how dated the symbol, I still think that there is something elevating and worthy about an event that provides an emotional connect between today’s go-ahead India and the hopes of our founding fathers.

And, the older I have got, the less offended I am by the martial-focus of the parade. The Indian army is truly one of this country’s great institutions. Unlike other Third World armies (and those in South Asia, in particular), it remains largely clean and determinedly apolitical. Despite its lack of a visible stake in government, its loyalty to civilian democracy is beyond dispute and its men are prepared to give their lives to prove it.

I concede that a military parade is not a mark of liberal democracy. But I also think that a parade that celebrates the spirit of the finest army in the Third World and re-emphasises the military’s deference to civilian authority, serves an important purpose. Every time we are at war, we recognise the value of the Indian army. What’s wrong with doing it, once a year, during peacetime?

Of course there are things I would change about the parade.

I would cheerfully shoot all the tableaux designers. I would hesitate to put small children through hell for the sake of the march. I would try and find ways of increasing the connect with Indians of all classes. One of the great things about viewing the parade in the old days, apparently, was the classlessness of the spectator experience — so different from today’s VIP seating and VVIP enclosures. And I would make the Saudis buy expensive tickets — if they are going to turn up, they might as well spend those petro-dollars.

But, on balance, I still think that we can sometimes be too cynical about the emotional power of a grand spectacle and can fail to recognise the elevating effect it has on the public mood.

For all our recent successes, India is still a relatively young nation, divided within itself by many, many walls. If there is one event that has the ability to cut through those divisions and to make us all proud to be Indians together — it would be a mistake to scrap that event.

As a spectacle, the parade may not be perfect. But as the great unifier of the many Indias we inhabit, it still has the power to remind us of the spirit that created our nation. And, for that alone, it is worth keeping.

First Published: Jan 22, 2006 01:57 IST