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Beyond the Grandeur of India’s Republic Day

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

This year on, 26th January 2022, India celebrated its 73rd Republic Day. On this day, in 1950, the Constitution of India came into effect, turning the nation into a newly formed republic. On this same day, in 1930, the Indian National Congress had declared Purna Swaraj (complete self-rule) as the goal for India, independent of the British Empire.

The highlight of these festivities is the grand Republic Day parade held in Delhi at Rajpath. It is witnessed by thousands in person out in the cold winter morning and broadcasted to millions of citizens on their televisions at home. Months of practice and preparation go into the performances and displays to execute the final procession to perfection. It is a yearly ritual to sit with the whole family in front of the television to witness this grand spectacle of patriotism and national pride. We all have nostalgic memories attached to the parade and remember watching it as children with awe and admiration. Only when we look at the parade from beyond these rose-tinted glasses do we see the underlying issues with some of its not-so perfect aspects.

It is not merely an innocent celebration of freedom but rather a blatant display of India’s military capabilities, showcasing the latest indigenously developed weaponry, and the discipline and precision of its forces.  This show of strength is not only aimed at neighboring countries and the international community but also serves as a reminder to the citizens of the state’s authority. It instils in them a sense of pride and security, while at the same time, compelling their obedience or even reverence.

Beyond the military facet, the event also showcases India’s cultural and social heritage. The ornate tableau and traditional dances in specific costumes are considered to be a tribute to India’s ‘unity in diversity’. While this intention of celebrating cultural diversity and preserving traditional forms is commendable, it often borders on exoticism- especially of the North-eastern states. This year Haryana’s tableau was sports themed and Punjab’s was about its contribution to the freedom struggle, whereas Arunachal Pradesh and Meghalaya’s tableaus most prominently highlighted the tribal dances accompanying them. It is akin to implying that the North East is not a place of development or modernity and its only notable contribution is the people’s ‘different’ culture’. What makes this more problematic is that the performers are hired and do not identify as members of the concerned tribes from whom the dances originated. These ritual dances are performed out of their intended contexts with no explanation given to viewers, contributing to exoticism.

In a first this year, the parade saw lavish purple carpeting rather than the usual red or green, spread out amidst the standing audience. In ancient Rome, purple was the color of imperial royalty, a designator of status. Every time the camera cut to the VIP seating section, with the purple peeking through much too prominently between the socially distanced chairs, the unbalanced power equation between the important officials and the masses they are supposed to serve repeatedly invaded the mind of this viewer.  

Another reminder of unequal status comes in the form of the President’s bodyguard. The elite horse mounted unit’s primary role is to escort and protect the President of India. Recruitment to the ceremonial unit raised in 1773 continues to follow outdated colonial practices of caste-based recruitment. Recruitment is restricted only to members of three castes- the Jat Sikhs, Jats and Rajputs- with each constituting one-third. This discriminatory practice continues till date, ironically upholding notions of caste hierarchy at the very heart of a ceremony which is supposed to be a celebration of constitutional democracy.

The Beating Retreat ceremony marks the end of nearly week-long festivities of Republic Day and is conducted on the evening of 29th January. It is performed by the bands of the three wings of the Indian military. This year’s ceremony faced some controversy due to the dropping of the Christian hymn Abide with Me, which was said to be Mahatma Gandhi’s favorite. It has been replaced by the popular patriotic Hindi song Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon. The justification given by the government is that it is part of the process of ‘decolonizing’ India. This seems rather odd, as the ceremony itself is a colonial legacy, tracing its origins to the 17th-century England. The move has been construed as religious politics against India’s Christian minority and an attempt to undermine Gandhi’s legacy.

Despite all of these observations, the Republic Day parade this year was, as always, a delight to witness. The shared experience of viewing the procession sparks a feeling of national pride and a deep visceral bond with your fellow countrymen. The marching contingents were sharp as ever and the 75-aircraft fly-past to mark 75 years of independence was a grand spectacle on an unprecedented scale. The novel 1000 drone display at the Beating Retreat ceremony was dazzling. Most of all the motorcycle stunts performed by the BSF all-women biker team was a powerful statement, causing many jaws to drop, shattering gender norms and giving the nation hope for a more equal future for all.

Sumedha Vashista is a Sociology Honours student at Jesus and Mary College, Delhi University with a specialization in overanalyzing the ordinary. She loves vintage films, flared jeans, slow ballads, cheesy romance novels, and anime.
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