The three months preceding every 26th of January, the Indian Republic day, is a hectic period for the Ministry of Defense and Defense Services. A joint secretary oversees the conduct of the entire function. The Chief of Army Staff holds the Army day parade on the 15th of January and the same troops then take part in the republic day parade. The Air Force rehearses the fly past, which provides a spectacular end to the parade. Combined brass and pipe bands of all three services practice for the ceremonial beating of the retreat, and mounted troops go through their paces for the night light tattoo, which form part of the festivities.
It commemorates the date that the Indian Tricolor was first unfurled in January 1930 at Lahore, by Jawaharlal Nehru, future prime minister of India,. There at the banks of the Raavi he declared that the Indian National Congress will nor settle for anything less than full independence from British rule.
The Indian republic and its constitution came into being on the first republic day in 1950.
I was a college student then and not certain what the big fuss was about. Over the years the republic day has entered the psyche of the masses as India's most important national festival, supplanting the Independence Day on 15th of August 1947. The difference between the two days was explained to me by a perceptive friend. 'Independence Day is a day for remembrance, for looking back and proclaiming future goals. The prime minister does that, from the ramparts of the Red Fort in Old Delhi. A declaration of intent.' 'Republic Day is the peoples' show, to celebrate the freedom we now have, and parade achievements. The President takes the salute, and acknowledges what the people have done.'
The president rides forth in state surrounded by mounted bodyguards. The prime minister receives him at the saluting base, and the three service chiefs of staff stand beside him as he takes the salute at the march past.
Forming up on the sides of the Rashtrapati Bhavan (Presidential Residence), the parade vends its way past the presidential podium on Raj Path, to India Gate and along Tilak Marg through Cannaught Place to terminate at the Red Fort in Old Delhi.
The parade is a huge and joyous display that includes winners of the children's bravery awards, carried high on caparisoned elephants, warriors with medals of valor, the camel corps, cavalry regiments, the newest weapons inducted into the forces displayed on trailers, marching columns of army navy and air force contingents followed by para-military, police and emergency services, elaborate tableaus from Union Ministries, and every State and Union Territory, along with folk dancers from remote corners of the country dancing along in their colorful costumes. Then come endless masses of dancing and cheering school children. A formation of Air Force planes streaks past and disappears in a blaze of rainbow colors. Bedecked helicopters shower spectators with flower petals and thousands of multicolored balloons appear in the sky.
The masses have imbibed the spirit of celebration and internalized it. To them 'Chabbis Junvari' conjures up parade, color, carnival, spectacle, pride, solidarity and joy.
The pull and appeal of the occasion became real for me when I was taken away from my sedate duties as depot accounts office to assume charge as commandant of the folk dancers camp in December 1965. For the Delhi Sub Area it was just one of many routine assignments met by detailing whatever officers were available from establishments under its command.
For me on an individual basis, it was a very unusual experience, totally different from ordinary station duties. On the face of it all it involved was setting up tented accommodation and providing cold weather army clothing and blankets for the folk dancers, and screened entry to authorized contractors and visitors to the camp. Actually it was much more as I discovered when entrusted with the charge.
Setting up camp, timely collection and distribution of stores and their subsequent return to the army depots were the least of my worries.
The greatest challenge turned out to be to keep out curious crowds from encroaching on the privacy of the performers. Entry had to regulated by permits, and I was besieged with requests all the time. The folk dancers were exotic species and the media, politicians, culture vultures, the youth and all kinds of curious folk wanted to gate crash and find their way into the secluded but busy precincts of the camp. The participants had a crowded training schedule, the artists working on the floats had to give shape to their drawings and they were not to be distracted from their time tables. They found precious little time to relax and my crew and I were responsible to see that they were not overwhelmed or made objects of idle curiosity in their home away from home.
Sanitation was another challenge. The ministry enrolled casual workers, answerable to me. I had to keep them motivated and moving. Luckily most lived nearby, and spoke Haryanvi, a dialect spoken in my village. I gave all my directions to them in that language, humored them, and we got on famously.
Fire prevention required great vigilance. There was an incidence when artists relaxing around a tableau set off fire to their proud creation through negligence. It was dusk and before the fire tender on site could reach the spot, a woman sanitary worker with great presence of mind started flinging elephant dung on it. Every one joined in and they were able to smother it without much damage to the tableau.
Speaking of elephants, the daily doing of the dozen or so pachyderms at the camp formed a fair sized hill and had to be removed every night. It was amusing to learn that an elephant requires around a quintal of peanut oil as a mild laxative!
Keeping the territorial army workers together and motivated was another of my chores. I knew none of them earlier and had to take them all on trust and hope that my instructions will be carried out automatically.
Consequently I followed up on implementation by ticking off the many checklists maintained for my own benefit. A dictum drilled into my head in my subaltern days 'What is not checked is not done' stood me in good stead now.
This tenure at the camp gave me a grass roots view of how diverse Indians really are. There was a big representation of tribes from the East, Central India, the South and the West. The officials accompanying them reflected regional attitudes. Degrees of sophistication varied greatly. The Nagas, Mizos and Khasis were educated in Missionary schools, converted to Christianity, and felt politically slighted, whereas the tribes from Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh were more tribal and traditional in their outlook. The Bhils, and Murias from Central India, the tribal folk from Utter Pradesh hills were also travelers from bygone times, but the Haryanvis, and Punjabis were bold and brash, with their performance influenced greatly by glitzy commercial movie shows. There were some hauntingly graceful performers from Saurashtra, Kerala and Assam, some indifferent ones from Goa and Maharashtra, but taken all together they made a strikingly original and colorful group of artists.
No wonder they were in great demand by foreign TV companies. One or another TV crew was always filming the groups as they practiced for the main event on republic day.
The song and drama division of the ministry of defense was in charge of the cultural events and I had an uneasy feeling that they were extra keen on granting access to Western TV groups at the cost of the Door Darshan TV crew who appeared to be side lined. Indian TV was not big then, still I remember feeling how cavalierly they used to be treated.
I remember how some performers complained about the food. Once, when the complaints were reported to the ministry, I was besieged by the attention of the caterer in charge, who came to ingratiate himself. It was revolting.
The performers were dreamy eyed youth with not a care in the world, or seasoned performers weary of honors without suitable monetary rewards.
This particular year, every one's sensibilities were heightened due to the war with Pakistan. Peace talks were going on at Tashkent with the USSR mediating and felicitating.
The uneasy peace brokered at Tashkent on the night of 10 January 66 came at a cost. Lal Bahadur Shastri, the Indian prime minister died of a heart attack, a little after signing on the treaty that came into effect at midnight. His last contact with his family was a telephone call asking his son about public reaction to the agreement. He was told that the people were not pleased.
The news of the agreement, and Shastri's death was relayed to me within hours of the events. The information was flashed to us to get the float designers to tone down their anti Pakistan themes, and to reflect the peace agreement. The passing away of the prime minister necessitated changes to various schedules and bring the flag to half-mast at sunrise.
I was up most of that night. It was cold. The artists were working on the floats at night at a feverish pitch, as there was only about ten days for the practice runs for the parade to begin. The final full scale run takes place on 23 rd of January which also is freedom fighter luminary ' Netaji' Subhash Chandra Bose's birthday. I was with a merry bunch of Bengalis who sang along while working. Most of them belonged to the Annand Marg cult that was later banned. They had lit a fire with shavings from the woodwork done at site. I was fascinated with what they could do with paper pulp. The news about the agreement needed to be passed on instantly, and was a welcome one. Then I had to beak the sad news, a little before dawn.
The mood swung swiftly, from sober to somber.
The artists were mostly young people, working on themes to showcase the best in their diverse cultures, probably coming together and learning from each other for the first time. They came from vastly different backgrounds, the very isolated regions or from metropolitan cities. But in the two months and a half from the middle of November to the end of January they interacted closely, and returned with much more awareness of a national identity.
Indira Gandhi as minister of Information and Broadcasting, was in charge of cultural events and the media. She came to the camp to meet the artists and they dragged her into their performances and insisted on being photographed with her. It worked to mutual advantage. They could name drop and show off, and for the politician it translated into votes and exposure. Nehru's daughter had elegance and aplomb and charisma enough to sweep every one off their feet. As she joined in with a group, she swayed to the music in time and was never caught off beat. It was known that she could sulk, but she was ever gracious while with the simple folk dancers at camp. Her entourage was large. There were large groups of Indira watchers, those who had divined that this was one woman who would be calling the shots soon and they shadowed her tirelessly. She took them in her stride and generally seemed to be oblivious to their presence.
But she did not disappoint her admirers. The future belonged to her.
I was camp commandant of the folk dancers camp for the next republic day as well. This time around, Indira Gandhi was the prime minister but she still found time to come to the camp. As ever it was a joy to behold her dancing gracefully with the various troupes.
I cherish the group photograph she was gracious enough to pose for with the staff of the camp.
When the last group left for home, with warm parting gestures and farewells from their departing vehicles, it pulled at the heartstrings of the staff. We held a farewell function of our own and it was evident that we had benefited greatly by participating in this glorious event.