Two days ago, 26th January, was our Republic Day. A few years ago my niece was all dressed in white off to her Republic Day flag hoisting ceremony at her kindergarten. When I asked her where she was off to, she said, “Today is Debuglic Day.” And the name has since stuck.
One tends to stop doing patriotic things like attend flag hoisting ceremonies and sing the national anthem once you leave school. I know that some Indian companies and factories make it a regular feature that employees must attend but for most of us not part of an institution, it tends to pass us by somewhat. This year we decided to attend the ceremonial parade of the Eastern Naval Command. I’ve never seen a Navy parade before and thought that at least once in my life I should, considering my husband’s in the Navy. There’s a dress code of course, and it’s only at official Navy functions that no matter how lovely a woman’s saree is, she is out dressed by Naval Officers in their smashing No.2 dress uniforms – stripes, medals, sword and all as you can see below.
According to my husband this parade is not half as good as what the Naval Cadets put on when they graduate. I actually enjoyed the pomp and ceremony, the parade commander bellowing his three line orders, the presenting of arms (something like what you see from the opening scene of A Few Good Men), the inspection of the guard and of course the band. They say, “Join the Navy and see the world” and this is most apt if you join the Naval Band. They accompany the troops on long deployments to South East Asia, Middle East, Africa, to bolster the spirits of the men as all military bands have done perhaps since the start of battles and skirmishes. The band began with the Colonel Bogey March (you’ll remember that from Bridge Over River Kwai) and went on to some Indian favourites. They really set the tone for the whole occasion with a specific few bars for each part of the ceremony. It can’t be easy to march and play an instrument at the same time.
Republic Day is celebrated because it is the day we finally adopted the Indian Constitution. While we gained independence from the British in 1947, it was only in 1950 that we ceased to be a dominion of the British Empire. What’s striking is that we hold on to so many British traditions, even some that the Royal Navy no longer practices. But we have Indianised some things, like the commands are given in Hindi, not in English. For instance, the command, “National salute present arms”, becomes “Rashtria salute salami shashtra“.
A common feature of Republic Day and Independence Day in India is that the movie Gandhi is screened on Sony Pix every year. It’s been almost two and half decades since I saw this epic and this year, the patriotism swept me over and I watched most of the movie (it’s a 3 hr epic, I just couldn’t keep awake for the whole thing).
During the ad breaks between the movie, there’s a little snippet of facts from the making of the movie. Hilariously or shockingly I’m not sure which Sony Pix has said, “The uncanny resemblance between Ben Kingsley and Gandhi lead some of the natives to believe it was Gandhi’s ghost.” Natives?! Natives?! Bad Sony Pix.That was my patriotism summarily quashed. And you’ll never here an Indian say, Gandhi, always Gandhiji.
My husband’s grandmother, who turned 90 last August was very active in the freedom struggle. I’ve always wanted to document her memories of her life, especially during the freedom struggle. She tells of how she met Gandhiji and like so many scenes captured in the movie, huge swells of people would assemble on the platform of a train station not knowing which compartment he would emerge from but happy to just be a part of the crowd. She was part of of one of those crowds and her husband had brought a garland for Gandhiji. She says that they had got word from someone as to which compartment he would be in and sure enough he alighted right in front of them. As he moved through the crowd, her husband garlanded Gandhiji and the great man threw the garland back at him and almost shouted at him saying he was not a deity to be garlanded, just a man. Her husband was so delighted that he’d been shouted at by Gandhiji, even if he didn’t accept the garland. Gandhiji did not like the wastage of money on garlands and this is well documented.
The movie is desperately heart wrenching. It never ceases to amaze me just how poor people were (and how little has changed) and how 350 million people could be so easily dominated by just a 100,000 white rulers and even fewer Indian kings before them; these rulers are now replaced by the new colonizers: corporations and politicians. Despite the horrific acts by the colonisers and some misguided idealism by some of our Indian leaders at the time, gaining our freedom from the Empire fixes our patriotism firmly to those episodes of liberation. When doing a semiotic study on the meaning of Britishness, apart from not having a written constitution, the lack of a freedom struggle from an “other” became something of a missing link that people could (not) reference. The end of World War II is the struggle that is closest to their “freedom struggle”. Lets not forget that India did not gain its independence through war, something even the United States cannot claim.
What would Gandhiji think of India today? What would he think of globalisation, the violent struggles for independence in the Middle East and generally violence in the world? The Occupy Wall Street and similar Occupy movements around the world is at least in step with his doctrine of non-violence. He said, “Where there’s injustice, I always believed in fighting. The question is, do you fight to change things or to punish?”
Here’s the irony of it all, we were commemorating a day achieved mostly due to a man whose method was non-violence, and we were at a military function. There are some countries without an army, like Costa Rica and Grenada. But the reality is that if everybody’s got an armed force, and I’m sitting in between Pakistan and China, I sure as hell would not want to be left without one.