On Christmas Day 1994, I was leading an Indian Army United Nations Military Observer Group in war-torn Rwanda. We were deployed for peacekeeping, and with us were soldiers and civilian officials from over 35 countries. I was invited for midnight mass by one of the contingents. Attending the event with me were a mixed group of people as international as can be. In my deep bass voice I sang praises to the Lord through hymns and psalms, and prayed without the customary prayer book as I knew most Protestant Christian prayers by heart.
At the cake and coffee session many international people walked up to me to inquire how being a Muslim I was so conversant with everything Christian. I smiled at them and responded with: “What makes you think that we in India stick to our individual faiths? What you saw me do, I can do equally well for all major faiths in India. We have a syncretic culture, and like and respect all faiths.” India's stock in the mission, already high due the professionalism of our soldiers, rose even higher that night.
- ‘Abide With Me’ denotes a devotee of any faith imploring the Divine to remain by his side, supporting him through thick and thin in the travails of life.
- A tradition around ‘Abide With Me’ has been built, and who better can ensure tradition than the Indian Armed Forces who are responsible for the conduct of the Beating Retreat ceremony.
- If India calls Mahatma Gandhi its ‘Father of the Nation’, and if the true meaning of the hymn is appreciated in the context of Martyr’s Day, its place in the Beating Retreat ceremony needs to be cemented.
‘Abide With Me’: What it Truly Means
Let us cut to today. I very often repeat those words spoken in Rwanda, to foreign diplomats, foreign student officers attending courses in Services' institutions, and just about anyone who doubts Indian pluralism. I speak on this internationally in symposiums, on television too, and write in the media. I was brought up that way by my parents whose then impending marriage almost became a victim of India's partition. I come from a family which consciously chose India as its home and it's nation, and as a second generation soldier of the Indian Army, in its finest traditions, proudly imbibed the faith of my troops as much as I did my own.
For at least fifty years I have been hearing the musical rendering of the wonderful Christian hymn, ‘Abide With Me’ — at not just the Beating Retreat ceremony at Delhi but numerous such ceremonies which are held with massed bands of the Armed Forces at different locations of the Indian Army.
Six months ago I sang the hymn with gusto and pride at the 150th Founders Day of Sherwood College Nainital, my alma mater. The haunting notes of the hymn converted beautifully to facilitate its playing by military bands, and held audiences in awe. Most may just appreciate the music but not the spirit of the hymn behind it. ‘Abide With Me’ denotes a devotee of any faith imploring the Divine to remain by his side, supporting him through thick and thin in the travails of life. Its very first stanza brings that out clearly and goes like this:
Abide with me; fast falls the eventide;
The darkness deepens; Lord with me abide.
When other helpers fail and comforts flee,
Help of the helpless, O abide with me.
India’s Tradition of Cultural Syncretism
It was Mahatma Gandhi's favourite hymn and symbolically, its inclusion as the last musical rendering of the Beating Retreat ceremony on 29 January each year at Vijay Chowk, is most significant. The next day, 30 January is the day Mahatma Gandhi was assassinated, and is marked as India's Marty's Day. A tradition has thus built, and who better can ensure tradition than the Indian Armed Forces who are responsible for the conduct of the Beating Retreat ceremony.
Thus, once rumours were afloat that the Beating Retreat ceremony this year would be minus ‘Abide with Me’ and it would be replaced with ‘Vande Matram’, a furore of sorts was naturally created among lovers of tradition, especially military tradition.
Of course, ‘Vande Matram’ must be included. Its musical adaption is again beautiful and that contributes to the everlasting pursuit to keep the Beating Retreat ceremony refreshingly innovative each year.
Many old Scottish tunes have been replaced with compositions by the Indian Army's School of Music at Pachmarhi, Madhya Pradesh. The bands play ‘Sam Bahadur’ with gusto and bring alive ‘Kadam Kadam Badhaye Ja’ as they perform figure marching, but the roll of the drums continues as before, perhaps several times better than many of the Scottish and British bands, again symbolising the perfect blend of tradition and modernity.
‘Abide With Me’ Has A Message Beyond Faith & Religion
If 'Abide With Me' was (at all) being ‘removed’ from the ceremony on the grounds that it's been there too long and needs to be replaced with an Indian composition, the organisers obviously failed to take into account how far we must go in blending the old and the new. If India calls Mahatma Gandhi its ‘Father of the Nation’, and if the true meaning of the hymn is appreciated in the context of Martyr's Day the next day, its place in the Beating Retreat ceremony needs to be cemented — with anything else around it changing as per need.
Mercifully, it turns out the hymn is very much part of the Beating Retreat this year, putting all controversy to rest.
If ever — as some speculated — the tune was considered for removal for being a ‘Christian hymn’, I, along with many right thinking people in the country would always resist it. With globalisation the norm for the decades after the Cold War, and given a fillip by the flattening of the world with the coming of the World Wide Web, unfortunately now receding, the global footprint of Indian culture too has been on the rise. India has given the world the universal message of yoga as something beyond faith. Its voluminous soft power includes the principles of co-existence. It's in this spirit that ‘Abide With Me’ is a message beyond faiths, which conveys the loneliness of the human and the necessity of support to those who need it at different stages of life, and in hundreds of situations we all undergo.
‘Abide With Me’ Is Not Christian, Muslim Or Hindu — It’s Human
Most of all, ‘Abide With Me’ applies to soldiers in lonely postings threatened by climatic conditions and by the nefarious intent of the enemy; when avalanches threaten lives in winter, and ambushes await the moves of our men. Anyone viewing the fascinating new film ‘1917’, currently running in theatres all over India, will appreciate the tragedy of war and the sufferings of soldiers in combat conditions.
To many of us who live in the comforts of our cities hardly is it realised what loneliness our soldiers experience at the borders.
The camaraderie of fellow soldiers may exist in plenty but deep down in their souls, the urge for support from the unseen divine hand is intense. They all pray, and in those far off places, it’s immaterial which god you pray to; the prayer is for that comfort we all desire while in physical danger. That is why ‘Abide With Me’ has no colour of faith. It's not Christian or Muslim or Hindu; it’s simply human.
One feels glad to learn that 'Abide With Me' still has its rightful place in the Beating Retreat ceremony. It reinforces my belief and pride in India which has to remain a beacon to the world in the domains of acceptance and inclusiveness, two areas which seem to be diminishing, but will surely return stronger if we continue to imbibe the words of that other great gospel song composed by Charles Albert Tindley — ‘We Shall Overcome’.
(The writer, a former GOC of the Army’s 15 Corps, is now the Chancellor of Kashmir University. He can be reached at @atahasnain53. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)