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Tears Of Joy, But Fears Ahoy

Tears Of Joy, But Fears Ahoy

My heart swelled with pride, and my tears welled up with joy. I was watching the 69th Republic Day Parade (RDP) on TV. I try to watch it every year. The only time I saw it live was in 1958 when my father was invited by the then Chief of Army Staff, Gen Thimayya.

This year’s parade was special in some ways, and predictable in others; but at the end of the day, or the parade, the over riding sentiment was “Proud to be an Indian”. I do wish that more of our young people and the aspirational class who feel that they have attained nirvana if they are sitting in front of a work station in an IT company, would take time off to watch the RDP.

Prime Minister Modi has a knack of doing things differently. So instead of the usual prince or Prime Minister from a random country, this time we had Heads of State from 10 ASEAN countries. A feat in itself; besides being a logistic and security nightmare. I noticed that Aung San Suu Kyi of Myanmar sat erect and alert throughout the parade, but drug buster/ encounter specialist President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines looked suitably bored. Perhaps he would have favoured “real” action to the “rehearsed” variety!

There are many pacifists who question the relevance of a parade that showcases the nation’s military might. I beg to differ. I see it as something to be legitimately proud of – the diversity, the colour, and most importantly the spit and polish discipline. If the defence forces are so disciplined then why is it that the rest of us would rather spit every where, be so unpolished and undisciplined? I have long advocated strict enforcement of school and college youth being inducted into the NCC. Post college, youth should be encouraged to do three years in the defence services (a la Israel), and thereafter be given preference in the job market. In like manner, I feel that all those doctors and engineers who study at tax payers’ expense should be made to do a two year stint in rural areas or social sectors before being awarded their degrees. Such persons should get preference for higher studies or specialization.

The marching contingents are always a joy to behold, even if we see burly sardars swaying to Scottish bagpipes. But it is a heart jerking moment when the widow of a bravery award winner comes up to the dais. This year the Ashok Chakra (the highest gallantry award in peace time) was given posthumously to an Air Force commando, Corporal Jyoti Prakash Nirala (the name itself means Wonderful Light). This time the widow was accompanied by the mother of the deceased. I am not sure what message the Govt wanted to send out through this subtle change.

I was pleasantly surprised to see the parade being led by the 15 Punjab Battalion. Twenty years ago it was posted in my hometown, Kanpur. It had just returned from a UN assignment in Somalia. Decades earlier it had won acclaim for its bravery at the Zojilla Pass battle in Kashmir. The present commander was Col Anil Shorey who was a good friend. One thing that I remember about him and his unit was that he would collect the excess rations and donate it to the Govt home for destitute women. The officers’ wives would even cook food for them. From somewhere those poor women would have blessed the 15 Punjab.

I get goose pimples whenever the armoured unit approaches the saluting base and the tanks lower their turrets pointed at the President of India. It always reminds me of how Anwar Sadat, the then President of Egypt, was assassinated in just that fashion at a military parade. Perish the thought.   

Three years ago when Modi wore his famous name woven suit, buddy Barak was the gum chewing Chief Guest. He remained suitably interested and politically correct through the regimental parade and cultural pageant. The only time his jaw dropped (he may have swallowed his chewing gum) is when the BSF riders came out with their astounding motorcycle formation. Every year this event is something that gets even the yawners and cynics out of their seats. This year it was doubly impressive because the feat was performed by 113 women of the Seema Bhawani unit of the BSF. More so since they had just 6 months to prepare from scratch. The only other contingent that was unique was again from the BSF – the camel mounted fighters and musicians; the latter the only one of its kind in the world, just like the women bikers.

Before I move on to the floats there is something that has been agitating me over the last year that I now feel I must reveal. My son is a professional journalist, motorcyclist and passionate cyclist. In 2015 he had applied to join the Territorial Army, the auxiliary wing of the regular army. After passing the written exam he appeared for the preliminary interview on the very morning that we were told about the “surgical strike” in Pakistan. A few months later he was called up for the Services Selection Board. Out of 90,000 aspirants just 50 were now called. Of them 20 got eliminated on the first day. Of those that remained his batch mates felt that my son would be among the handful that would be selected because he had acquitted himself well in all disciplines.

But on the last day the Camp Commandant told the 30 guys remaining that none of them had been selected because they were too intelligent! This cut to the quick. Psychological tests for school boys joining the NDA cannot be the same as for 30 year old professionals volunteering to serve the nation, while keeping their careers on hold. What message is the army sending out? Is it only meant for mediocres that unthinkingly obey orders? Is today’s warfare about charging the enemy with bayonets, or strategy and tactics to outwit the enemy? Does one require brawn or brains for missile technology and electronic surveillance? Never mind my son. I think that the army and the nation are the poorer for this. I hope that an “intelligent” Defence Minister like Nirmala Sitaraman will pay heed.

Now to the cultural extravaganza. I noticed that the floats were chosen bearing in mind the Asean dignitaries. So there was preponderance from the North East, with the participants having distinctly mongoloid features. There were two with Buddhist themes. The chanting of the monks from Spiti was soul stirring. But I did feel that there was too much importance given to religious themes, rather than social or developmental ones.

The wildlife presentation from Karnataka was very real. Modi’s pet projects like Swacch Bharat, GST and Demonetisation found no place. Though there was one on “Swacch Dhan” (clean money), which was a positive spin, instead of bemoaning black money, for which we brown Indians have a strong affinity. The Sports tableau was pathetic. It had a boxing ring. We should have showcased made in India desi pehelwans, who wrestle in the dust.

I have said this before. Why don’t we highlight some of our great achievements like Amul, a milkmaids’ co-operative taking on corporates to make India the world’s biggest milk producer? Why not ISRO from where we are launching satellites for half the world? Of course if we really want to set Rajpath on fire then we should have presented our national pastimes – cricket and Bollywood. Shush, don’t talk about Padmawati!

I noticed that the Doordarshan coverage kept panning the cameras on a host of BJP ministers and leaders. They did occasionally show Manmohan Singh and his wife, and there was a fleeting shot of Rahul Baba sitting in the 6th row behind a whole lot of non-entities.

Barring such blips on an otherwise well orchestrated RDP I would rate it 9/10. The photography, including an overhead camera, was excellent, though the DD commentary and audio did not match the video. Miss you Rini Simon.

This time Modi has executed a diplomatic coup by getting 10 Asean leaders for the pageant. He has showcased the nicer side of India. If he has left anybody fuming it is China, finding itself hedged in by the Asean ring.

Amid the joy there are also words of caution ahoy; the dirty underbelly of the other India – the pain and alienation being felt by minorities and dalits, distressed farmers and laid off workers, and the unending religious infiltration couched as “culture”. But today let us give Modi the salute that he has earned.

(The writer’s family has been closely associated with the army since the First War of Independence in 1857.)

(Published on 05th February 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 06)