The forgotten meaning of Republic Day

Yes, it was India’s 66th Republic Day on Monday. And yes, it is true that parades are a bit dated, 20th century commie-fascist thingies. But you know, so what? The military part is quite uplifting, all those marching bands and that dum-te-dum-te-boom-boom music. It’s a good way for the nation to see all our Forces and Services in their resplendent glory, together with whatever weaponry we’ve bought and developed. And watch those floats from different parts of India, all so slightly tacky but lovingly put together with sometimes painfully tuneless singing. It’s about colour and vibrancy and diversity and all those clichés from TV commentators and those general experts on everything. What is the purpose of a parade but to make you feel good? We can even forgive those who thought there were no parades at all till Barack Obama visited India for the second time when Narendra Modi was prime minister.

Performers walk alongside a float representing the state of Maharashtra during the Republic Day parade in New Delhi on Monday. What is the purpose of a parade but to make you feel good? It’s about colour and vibrancy and diversity and all those cliches from TV commentators and those general experts on everything. Pic/AFP
Performers walk alongside a float representing the state of Maharashtra during the Republic Day parade in New Delhi on Monday. What is the purpose of a parade but to make you feel good? It’s about colour and vibrancy and diversity and all those cliches from TV commentators and those general experts on everything. Pic/AFP

But Republic Day is about more than parades. Hmm. It is in fact about the day we gave ourselves our Constitution and every year, we need to remind ourselves of how far we’ve come (pat on the back) and how many we’ve left behind (whack on another part). If we get too involved in the parade part, we fail ourselves and our future.

In India, we all too often believe that democracy is only about voting and elections. You get your finger inked and your responsibility is over. Sometimes we don’t even bother when it comes to the little elections. And that’s where we’ve failed our Constitution the most. We’ve accepted universal franchise although the literate middle classes would so like to restrict voting to the so-called “educated”, thus emulating ancient Greece and Rome, which they may have heard about through Hollywood. And we sort of have forgotten the rest. Fundamental rights have to be sacrificed to larger community interests, religious and caste freedom must be debated over and over again. And in many parts of the nation, the freedom given to women in the Constitution has to be combated with fervour and determination.

And yet, in some democracies, the voting has taken a back seat to well-applied public pressure in a number of ways. That is not ideal either but there is little to suggest that we are better off than them. Since January 26, 1950 we have too many still left behind on all counts. The stats are better but even that’s not good enough. Yes, politicians are to blame and yes, every time we’ve voted we’ve not always made the right choices. But maybe, just maybe, we’ve not pushed them enough, whoever they were.

And now, with the current dispensation in power, we’ve got into a version of the “with us or against us” argument put forward by former US president George W Bush. Apparently, since Narendra Modi was “democratically elected” you are not allowed to criticise him. There is nothing more absurd to the principles of democracy than this statement. It is not true for Modi and it was not true for the various governments before him, Congress or Janata or those odd little coalitions that tried to take the Centre. And it will not be true for the future either. The essence of democracy is dissent and your inalienable right to disagree with a government. If not, you are a dictatorship or a monarchy or a theocracy. We are none of those and that is what Republic Day has to remind us of, regardless of the rousing motorcycle demos and the might of the chief guest.

If we do not ask questions of all our politicians, we might as well stop paying lip service to the Constitution and everything else. Make the parade the main event and hey, if we keep at it maybe we can even beat North Korea which puts up some spectacular shows.

Just to make things clear, we have another test coming up on January 30. The day Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated by Nathuram Godse. In case you still remember who the first chap is.

Ranjona Banerji is a senior journalist. You can follow her on twitter @ranjona

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