Instead of flexing our military might, Republic Day should become a day to celebrate the ideals enshrined in the Indian Constitution
On January 26, the armed forces will spearhead the Republic Day parade near India Gate. Soldiers will march past to the beat of martial music. Planes will roar overhead. But should this display of military might be used to celebrate the adoption of the Constitution? That document constituted India into a sovereign Republic pledged to justice, liberty, equality, and fraternity. Republic Day celebrations need to be overhauled totally to remind us of those ideals. This does not reflect on our forces but will serve as a reminder of the non-violent struggle that won us our Independence.
Once, India took pride in Gandhian non-violence as a moral and practical lesson for the world. Martin Luther King in the USA adopted Gandhian tactics to become the greatest black leader and an American icon. Nelson Mandela in South Africa also used Gandhian tactics to overturn apartheid. Gandhian glory arose not from war or violence but peaceful non-cooperation. If the BJP wants India to become a Vishwa Guru (Teacher to the World), it should highlight rather than downplay India’s greatest contribution—Gandhian non-violence.
The days when India boasted of Gandhian non-violence are gone. Indian films glorify violence of all sorts, include military conquest, but hardly ever glorify non-violence (the Munna Bhai films were a great exception).
Something is deeply wrong with today’s public psyche that sees glory rather than horror in war. Through most of history, war was indeed glorified, and the accompanying killing and loot was ignored as collateral damage. The greatest conquerors and killers got titles like Alexander the Great and Peter the Great.
This worldview was first challenged by the European Enlightenment that promoted the centrality of human rights. World War-1 then showed that modern technology had created such an enormous capacity for death and destruction that the winners ended up eviscerated and bankrupt almost as much as the losers. In Europe’s trenches lakhs of soldiers charged opposing forces and were gunned down, decimating an entire generation of youngsters. Mustard gas and chemical warfare maimed and killed without delivering military advantage. So horrible was the carnage that World War-1 was called a war to end all wars.
Alas, the western attempt to force Germany to pay reparations fuelled the rise of Hitler, so World War-1 merely led to World War-2. This time deaths exceeded 70mn, the worst by far in history. The atom bomb showed that humanity could destroy itself. This did not end wars but robbed them of patriotic sheen, limited military solutions, and spurred anti-war movements across the world. Anti-war books, poems and films formed an entire genre of the arts. This influenced politics and society too.
India, however, never developed an anti-war movement. Gandhian non-violence was adopted during the Independence movement as a moral and practical counter to colonial tyranny. But it never went the same path as anti-war movements elsewhere.
Over one million Indians volunteered to serve in the British Indian Army in World War-1, and 2.5 million in World War-2. But the fighting was almost entirely in far-off places, save for the defeat of Japanese forces at Kohima and Manipur, on the very fringes of the country. India had no conscription that, in Europe and the USA, made death and torn limbs a near-universal family tragedy.
On the anniversary of World War 1, political leaders, intellectuals, and artists in Europe and the USA condemned the horrors of war. By contrast, many Indians complained that the role of Indian soldiers in the War had not been given enough prominence, and should be glorified as part of a great military history. India Gate itself is a monument to the 84,000 soldiers of the British Indian Army killed in World War-1. Many of their names are engraved on the Gate. They died in Flanders, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Persia, East Africa, and the Near East.
For India to become a Vishwa Guru, it needs a different ethos. Let us start by reforming the Republic Day celebrations. Let it become a day to celebrate India’s achievements in the Constitutional ideals of justice, liberty, equality and fraternity, and pledge to overcome our shortcomings to date. Let us start with a competition for ideas on such a revolutionary new approach.