Sunday, July 21, 2024

Republic Day: The evolution of India’s military parade into a remarkable spectacle


On the eve of India’s 75th  Republic Day celebration, government authorities provided an uncommon clarification: the upcoming parade would not include a Bollywood song this year.

The parade has, in fact, never incorporated a Bollywood track, but the government found it necessary to clarify due to a recent controversy. An official account had posted a video seemingly previewing the grand annual parade for the Republic Day festivities, featuring a Navy band performing a popular Bollywood hit while others rhythmically stamped their feet and tapped their rifles.

This sparked a social media uproar, with opposition politicians accusing Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government of compromising the dignity of the armed forces, while others argued that the video mocked the significance of the iconic celebration. The department responsible for the tweet later explained that their intention was simply to showcase how personnel took a break during their demanding parade rehearsals.

Despite this controversy, among several others this year, the enthusiasm of the millions of Indians who tune in for the event is unlikely to be dampened. The celebration takes place in the heart of the national capital, Delhi, and is broadcasted live across the country.

Each year on January 26, India commemorates the day its constitution came into effect, establishing it as a sovereign republic. The event showcases the country’s military prowess, technological advancements, and cultural diversity. In 1950, this day marked the conclusion of India’s association with the British empire (although it chose to be part of the Commonwealth of Nations after considerable debate), and its first president, Rajendra Prasad, was sworn in.

India President Rajendra Prasad at the parade in 1956

In his book “India After Gandhi,” historian Ramachandra Guha recounts the inaugural parade where three thousand armed forces personnel marched in front of the president. The artillery complemented the occasion with a thirty-one gun salute, accompanied by the presence of Liberator planes from the Indian Air Force flying overhead.

The following year’s parade, as highlighted by academic Suchitra Balasubrahmanyan, underwent significant changes. The venue transitioned from a stadium to Rajpath (formerly King’s Avenue), a location rich in symbols of state. Balasubrahmanyan notes that in this new setting, the celebrations began to adopt a more spectacular nature.

Subsequently, the central government extended invitations to states, urging them to participate in a cultural pageant integrated into the parade.

During a period of heightened tension marked by linguistic and regional assertions, Ms. Balasubrahmanyan notes that the parade evolved into a crucial symbol, projecting an image of a diverse yet unified nation—a representation of a viable and cohesive national identity.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, linguistic discord was particularly pronounced as the central government sought to establish Hindi as the sole official language. This move encountered fierce opposition in southern states, where languages and scripts vastly differed from Hindi. Tamil Nadu, in particular, witnessed strong resistance, with the Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam party leading massive protests that included the burning of Hindi books and blackening of Hindi signs.

The government eventually abandoned the language policy after January 26, 1965, when two protesters self-immolated in the state’s capital, Chennai (formerly Madras).

As states began contributing their own floats or tableaux to the parade, typically highlighting cultural or historical milestones, the parades grew longer and more colorful. For individuals residing far from the power center of Delhi, witnessing their state’s representation in the parade remains an exhilarating experience.

Furthermore, various government departments now actively participate, showcasing models illustrating India’s achievements in agriculture, science, and technology.

A military parade past India Gate on on Republic Day

According to historian Srinath Raghavan, the Republic Day parade holds significant symbolic value for Indians, serving to reinforce their identity as participants in a formidable republic. He notes that the event drew inspiration from the grand receptions and processions organized by the British imperial power, which Indians were already familiar with. Additionally, Raghavan emphasizes that the parade seeks to convey a message to the global community about India’s capabilities.

Since 1950, starting with Indonesian President Sukarno, India has consistently invited a foreign dignitary as the chief guest to the parade, although this practice has faced challenges since 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The roster of chief guests reflects India’s diplomatic relations over the years. Notably, the last invitation extended to a Pakistani delegate was in 1965, just before the second of four wars with Pakistan. The choice of chief guests has also included figures like Marshal Ye Jianying, a Chinese Communist Party veteran, in 1958, four years before India and China engaged in a border dispute war. If Boris Johnson had attended in 2021, he would have been the sixth UK leader to do so.

In 2015, Barack Obama became the first American president to attend the parade, underscoring the improved relations between India and the US since the end of the Cold War. The Indian media hailed it as a “diplomatic coup” for Prime Minister Modi, who was in his first year of office at the time.

Despite scaled-down celebrations in recent years due to the pandemic, being chosen to participate in the parade remains a matter of pride for Indian states and military regiments. Raghavan suggests that for states, it is a means for their contributions to be acknowledged and accomplishments to be recognized by other constituents of the nation-state.


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