The tradition of military parades in India dates back to the medieval times. They were held as celebrations for victories against enemies or on the King’s Big Day. During colonial times, major parades were organised during the Delhi Durbars of 1903 and 1911, as well as on the official Birthday of the British Monarch.

Since 1951 the Republic Day Parade has been held annually in New Delhi to mark India's Republic Day, celebrating the enactment in 1950 of the Constitution of India. When it commenced as an annual event, it was the country's principal military parade honouring the Armed Forces of India.

The purity of a military parade, as also the adulation of the Indian Military lasted for only a few years, as the planning and conduct of the parade was given to the bureaucrats of the Ministry of Defence (MoD), who in their zeal of upmanship over the Indian Military, started diluting the parade of its military ethos.

Soon, a contingent of the Delhi Police was added and before you could say ‘Khabardar’, tableaus of various hues and colours were added, first from Defence PSU’s and then States and finally Ministries of the Central Government. Alongside these moves, contingents from Central Armed Police Forces, like BSF and CRPF; Home Guards; cadets of NCC and school children; and this year even ‘songs and dances of India; began appearing. Since State Elections, some crucial for the ruling party, are due in a few weeks, political statements made in the recent past were added, further changing the texture; the aim; and the overall structure of the Parade.

In 1951 and thereafter, the Parade was an entirely Army affair, under the complete control of Headquarters Delhi Area and the Adjutant General of Army Headquarters. When the MoD was brought in, the Secretary of Defence became the chief factotum, side-lining the three service chiefs, even though his appointment was well below theirs. Even when the late Gen Bipin Rawat was appointed the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), this obnoxious practice continued!

I had taken part in the Parade twice, once as a cadet from NDA in 1960 and the second time as a Gentleman Cadet from IMA in 1961. The then Chief of Army Staff (COAS) KS Thimayya specially came to our Mess to have ‘chai and charcha’, called simply tea then, with us, which was greatly appreciated by all. Similarly, the flamboyant Captain Bhawani Singh, the Scion of the erstwhile Jaipur State, who was the Adjutant of the Presidents Body Guards had arrived in his red painted open jeep, immaculately dressed, including in some non-regulation gear, and mingled with us at Vijay Chowk where we were assembled before the start of the Parade.

We used to march till the Red Fort, passing through Connaught Place and Darya Ganj. Those from Delhi had their girlfriends cheering them, especially in Connaught Place. Our lunch was arranged at the Red Fort.

The pride and elan of the Parade during those years is impossible to replicate now, although there is no diminishing the discipline, turnout and military bearing of the meagre number of military persons participating in the Parade now. The readers must have noted that the military portion of the event, spectacular no doubt, ends very soon and the rest of nearly one hour plus is used for other spectacles!

Military Parades of this type at the national level had meaning when the nation had become independent of our colonial past, for both domestic reasons and for impressing other countries. The Parade indirectly signified the coming of age of an independent nation that had emerged from not just a colonial past but one that had come through the crucible of Partition, with the largest displacement of refugees in history and perhaps a million dead; the amalgamation of nearly 550 Princely States with the Union, largely by persuasion; the war with Pakistan imposed within two months of our independence by Pakistan, in its bid to grab J&K by force; and a nation preparing for its legitimate place in the comity of nations.

Sad to say that the Republic Day Parade now has become a jamboree of disparate groups vainly trying to keep up the facade of a Military Parade, as the grandiose name ‘Republic Day Parade’ signifies.

It is time we carried out a major change in its planning and execution. Military parades at the national level in this era are incongruous in a democracy. It is only dictatorships of all types that resort to them, more as a warning to their own shackled populace, but also a show of force to real and potential adversaries. Remember the mass parades of Adolf Hitler of Germany, Benito Mussolini of Italy and Josef Stalin of Soviet Union during the 1940’s and 1950’s and the present-day dictators, Chinese President Xi Jinping and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

My suggestion is to change the Republic Day Parade to Republic Day Carnival, excluding the military completely and including civil groups, with the overall aim of a culturally happy, exuberant polity, where diverse entities are represented in a benign and harmless manner. Ideally, the government should have nothing to do with it, except coordination by say the Ministry of Culture, supplemented by a few representatives from other ministries like Information and Broadcasting, Home, Urban Affairs and so on.

The Military and Religious elements must be kept out so that it truly represents the secular nature of our Constitution.

It may be highlighted that we have three major military parades on Army, Navy and Air Force Days. These can be enlarged if required and can be televised compulsorily if needed. In case the political leaders want the public to see them, they can be guests of honour on these military parades. It will certainly add to the importance of the Parades.

Even a cursory look at the Republic Day Parade of this year will point to the colossal cost of mounting such a parade when the nations economy is in great distress. There is no need to give statistics, estimates and figures here but they do add up to the already heavy expenditure of the government. Besides funds, the time spent on producing such a show and the wear and tear of precious equipment, mainly borne by the military, are not commensurate with what is achieved.

As far as the military element of importance is concerned, viz. the honour bestowed on the highest gallantry award winners and their kin, a separate and exclusive ceremony can be held on the ground in front of the Rashtrapati Bhawan, as used to be done when our soldiers and officers were decorated with then highest awards like the Victoria Cross (equivalent to our PVC). This again could be televised by all channels.

It needs to be appreciated that in this information age, the vast majority of the populace views the Parade on TV or other electronic gadgets. It is only the ‘Sarkari’ crowd that shows its presence and sits, well wrapped on account of the cold, for over three hours, even when there is a colourful carpet/rug where chairs are kept. As far as the ‘hoi polloi’ are concerned, having got up early, braved the large number of security checks, they enter their designated places with minimum seating or other comforts.

The reader will notice that I have not factored in the political gains that accrue to the ruling dispensation, nor abstract reasons like emotional patriotic dividends that come to the fore during such events. I agree to such criticism, but being a realist and an apolitical individual on account of my upbringing, especially in the army, these are moot points, better ignored, as they spawn ill feelings and arguments, not to speak of minefields galore. These are best left to the experts!

Lt General Vijay Oberoi is a former Vice Chief of Army Staff and Founder Director of Centre for Land Warfare Studies (CLAWS). He continues to be the Founder President of the War Wounded Foundation, which works for raising the standards of living of all War Disabled personnel of the three Services.

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