I have never felt like celebrating 15th August, Independence Day. For me, coming from a family of Partition refugees, it marks the date of India's Partition. However, I do want to celebrate Republic Day because it is on this date in 1950 that the Indian Constitution came into effect. It is a document held sacred by millions of its citizens, including those of us who think its drafting was an elitist exercise and did not incorporate some of the key concerns of Mahatma Gandhi and his vision of institutions that would promote a culture of Self Rule or Swaraj.
But despite its limitations and flaws it offers each citizen-rich or poor --the promise of equality and many important freedoms as fundamental rights.
The government of India, however, has a strange notion of what is an appropriate way to celebrate the occasion; it not only shuts down all its offices but forces by law all commercial and corporate establishments to take a compulsory holiday. Public transport is also withdrawn. In Delhi for instance, the Metro and Delhi Transport Corporation run only a skeletal service-that too after the Republic Day Parade is over. Even flights are not allowed to take off from or land till the Parade is over and done with. Streets are deserted, markets are all shut and our usually bustling urban centres look like ghost cities.
There was a time, anyone could go and witness the celebrity Parade on Rajpath in Delhi by turning up early enough to get seats in the janataenclosure. Today, only VIPS are allowed access anywhere near Rajpath. The "people" who gather to witness the parade are overwhelmingly government officials, politicians and their families. There was a time thousands would gather en route to welcome the Parade as it moved from India Gate to Red Fort. Today, security scares have resulted in far fewer people venturing out of their homes to cheer the marchers. In smaller towns the celebrations are even more dull and grim, with bored school children brought in to sing the national anthem and applaud bored officials who do the flag hoisting ceremony while the population at large is excluded from any role on what is supposed to be a historic day for citizens' rights in India.
But nothing saddens me more than the pompous display of military might during the Republic Day Parade in Delhi. Instead of happy citizens we see contingent after contingent of military regiments-Punjab, Madras, Bihar, Assam Rifles, Gorkha et al-- march past the President, Prime Minister and other dignitaries gathered at Rajpath. They are followed by the display of the muscle and might of our air force and navy. The soldiers are accompanied by armoured tanks, ballistic missiles, anti aircraft guns, torpedoes and other deadly weapons. These are followed by various contingents of armed police-the CRPF, Railway Security Force, Border Security Force, CRPF, CISF and the works. Why on earth did our post independent rulers choose this Soviet style display of the armed might of the Indian state on of all days, Republic Day? Is it meant to make the rulers feel secure from their own people? Or is this display of weaponry and military--police power meant to awe and frighten the citizens?
This is not at all to belittle the vital role played by our brave soldiers in defense of India but simply to point out that there are better occasions to celebrate our armed might. January 26 ought to be a people's festival. Instead it has become a deadpan sarkari ritual. It is significant that the colourful and lively contingents of school children and folk dancers come at the fag end of the Parade. In a genuine republic people come first. It is only where there are militaristic authoritarian regimes that coercive arms of the state machinery take precedence over people.
After giving us a glimpse of the gung ho, macho Indian state, we are subjected to a series of mostly unimaginative tableaux put together by various state governments and Public Sector Undertakings.
Deprived of the life force and energy that ordinary people bring to any occasion with their participation, the Republic Day Parade has become such a sombre event that TV cameras hardly catch a happy or smiling face among the select audience, except when school children or folk dancers appear on the scene or jaanbaaz soldiers display their acrobatic skills on motor cycles. Our ministers and bureaucrats look bored as though going through a tough ordeal. The most telling moment oftoday's Republic Day Republic Day Parade in Delhi was when the VIPS followed by the President and Prime Minister began leaving the venue of the flag past ceremony. They looked as sombre and miserable as people do when they are returning from a funeral.
One of my young friends, Wahid Parra from Kashmir, happened to be in Delhi on 26th January--his first experience of Republic Day in Delhi. He went to Connaught Place thinking the city centre will be in a festive mood. His shock at what he saw is aptly summed up in the following words: "Madhuji it was like being in Kashmir on Republic Day. There everything shuts down due to hartaalcall given by terrorists/ separatists. But here the government is enforcing ahartaal on the entire population. Strange country indeed!"