Parading Peace

When I was in school, for me as for most of us ‘down South’, in Madras, the great pageantry of Republic Day in Delhi was the closest one could get to a fantasy. On a frosty morning, around the famed India Gate, people gathered on either side of the road to witness the R-Day parade. Now this was not any parade. It was theparade, the Great Indian Pageant where everything lovely about India, its people, its history, its future was going to be displayed.

The commentaries were heady, with appropriate music of the patriotic kind, though mainly in Hindi. The army, air force and navy marchers were a treat. What precision, what perfect time they kept! And with what magic coordination their heads turned right, eyes unblinking, lips unsmiling, in true military tribute to the Head of the Indian state! I was thrilled and, like all boys of my generation, wanted at once to get into one of those uniforms.

And then, close upon the men who marched came the giant machines on wheels. Mostly olive-green, looking like a carnivorous dinosaur, glowering at one and all. And other warheads, missiles, with menacing names, aircraft with sharp noses, windows that looked like demon eyes, tails and fins that looked like they could slice the skies. I simply loved them. The deadlier they were, the lovelier they seemed.

The ‘floats’ seemed a terrible comedown. What were these dancers and cut-outs doing there intruding in my romance with battles? And that is when the great airplanes saved my morning. As they looped in the skies, my heart jived with them.

This is Republic Day; the day our country, with all its uneven-nesses, its inequalities, its ills, became a sovereign nation committed by a solemn promise in the Constitution to rid our land of its travails, to usher in justice, social, economic and political even before liberty. And here we are, flaunting weapons capable of mass destruction, of annihilation. I just freeze at the thought. This is not a simple celebration of our brave armed forces. This is the flaunting of prospective violence, of belligerence, no different from the parades of the North Korean dictator or older footage of Stalin and Mao. With each R-Day, these war machines turn more lethal, more hideous in their ability to penetrate the skies, disembowel the earth, bore through the seas, hit distant cities in other lands, and leave those a heap of smouldering ash, feeding the cycle of militarisation.

Soon after this year’s Republic Day parade, a news report read: “Nuclear-capable Agni missiles — a highlight for the past several years — were missing as U.S. President Barack Obama witnessed India’s military might and cultural diversity on what proved to be a rainy and cold 66th Republic Day.”

That one line spoke volumes. The arms market is no myth. Is it not true that weapons are made beyond all logical need in design and quantity for the greater glory of that market? How different is that real-life or real-death market from the factory that makes hideous toy-guns and toy-planes which little boys pester their dads to buy for them?

But our Republic Day is not the only place this bizarre preening takes place. Every evening at Wagah, soldiers on both sides of the border enact battleground yells and manoeuvres, cheered by respective citizens intoxicated with jingoism. And, at a deeper level, all this is also a sign of insecurity.

Republic Day needs to be re-visited. If we really want to celebrate the founding of our Republic, every Republic day we should convene a special session of Parliament. That session should each year discuss some one theme of national criticality, in the light of the Constitution, to celebrate that great document, that testament of national intentions. Our Constitution is our greatest gift drafted by people who believed in the unified future of this land. We must use this day to understand this document, to critique it, demand progressive changes, keeping alive its spirit and its drive. We love making holidays out of the anniversaries of the birth or death of leaders. Instead we should celebrate their contribution to the nation with engagement and introspection. May be, Republic Day should be the day — not a holiday but a working day — to remember the legacy of the architect of our Constitution, Babasaheb Ambedkar.

Republic Day will then be about the Republic and the people who contributed to making us a Republic, not a rehearsal for war.

Originally written for The Hindu