The question of whether India should have a “military” parade on Republic Day has been much debated over the last few years. I for one was still reeling from US President Barack Obama’s political mega show and after repeatedly hinting to the husband that we dance cheek-to-cheek to Etta James’ At Last, I convinced him to at least accompany me to the parade.
Heady parade: Central Industrial Security Force officials; you see them at the airport every time you travel. Gurinder Osan / AP
Now I’m not a parade-watcher. I have a short attention span, I can’t sit still unless I’m staring at a movie screen and I certainly can’t tell my Jaguars from my Dorniers. But after Obama, I wanted a shot of Indian jingoism; I wanted to feel some national feeling. So off we went, braving the roadblocks and diversions, criss-crossing roads named after politicians alive and dead, past security forces of all acronym (CISF, BSF, CRPF, DP, HG), through eight detailed car checks until finally we were there, seated in a spot across from the President.
I can’t remember the last time I saw so many men wearing so many different types of headgear. The husband, who grew up with parades, and who would much rather have watched this one on Doordarshan (with his breakfast firmly in hand), played expert commentator: “Look, an admiral with his freshly Brassoed sword”; “Watch the turrets of the Bheeshma T90 S/SK swivel. They were banned from doing that for many years”; “The cavalry became the tank battalion in modern warfare.”
The President drove up in a black stretch Mercedes with her guest Nursultan Nazarbayev, the president of Kazakhstan. For a Bombay girl whose only public exposure to the national anthem is the slow-mo Lata-Asha version before every movie at the Adlabs multiplex, the band version accompanied by the dull, reverberating thwack of the 21-gun (cannon actually) salute was quite something.
I was quite taken with the President’s Guard, upright six-footers on stunning bay steeds that are a minimum of 15.2 hands with a full mane. I could just imagine Mumbai’s chatterati oohing and aahing over these uniformed men, all qualified paratroopers.
Mumbai was in the spotlight when the Ashok Chakras were presented. “Posthumous means marne ke baad,” a mother explained to her child, as the wives (and one mother) lined up to accept the peace-time gallantry awards on behalf of their deceased, brave ones. Six of the 11 recipients died fighting the terrorists in Mumbai. Two fought terrorists in Jammu and Kashmir, one died in the Batla House encounter in New Delhi last September, one died battling militants in the jungles of Meghalaya, and one fighting Naxalites in Orissa.
Who can imagine what it must be like for Maya, Shanti Devi, Kavita, Vinita, Smita or Tarabai to stand up there in front of all those people, waiting till the announcer has finished explaining to the crowds how the man in their family died before they collect their commendation (and pat on the left shoulder) from the President. Really, the awards were a summary of all that went wrong in India last year.
Next, the parade commander was driven through Rajpath in a chrome-plated jeep and thus began our show of military strength. The BrahMos missile, the OSA-AK weapon system, tanks with mine ploughs, amphibious vehicles, advanced light helicopters, the menacing, three-storey-high Agni III missile and more weapon systems. This was another India, not New India, not Real India, just a Parallel India that crosses our lives only once a year.
The best part for me was not the 31 Dare Devils and their human pyramid on nine Enfields; it was the brightly-coloured, smart bands and marching contingents from the regiments that don’t occupy any of our mind space as we shuttle from work to home and back, trapped in our own urban reality/rut. The elite BSF marching contingent and its striking camel party; the Assam Rifles band with its swaying bagpipe players; the Sashastra Seema Bal (SSB), once a secret guerrilla force; the reclusive Ladakh Scouts; the naval and air force marching contingents (marching is not their strength, the husband pointed out), the folks from CISF (the same men you encounter at the airport, only dressed in their smart ceremonial outfits), and the best marchers, the Delhi Police.
In short, I found things other than Obama to think about. And Kadam Kadam Badhaye Ja has replaced At Last as my favourite song.
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