War memorial commemorating the most unforgiving and the ‘highest battlefield in the world’ ie Siachen Glacier, has a timeless inscription, “Quartered in snow, silent remain when the bugle calls, they shall rise and march again”. It hauntingly captures the conditions, sacrifices and nobility of the profession of arms, as also its inviolable tenet of discipline. As a substantial part of that fabled discipline, the combatants don’t just walk, saunter, or even run—they simply ‘march’ as ordained since eons.
Therefore, despite fighting tooth and nail and routing the enemies consistently, the preferred phraseology is always that the Indian Army ‘marched’ into Panjim in 1961, ‘marched’ onto the outskirts of Lahore in 1965, and ‘marched’ into Dhaka in 1971.
The act of ‘marching’ is part of standard drill for all militaries across the globe. What started as a deliberate method of choreographed way of moving troops from one place to another in an identifiable cluster, it has evolved as the most visibilised form of military discipline and elan.
Significance of Marchpasts in India
Military theorists believe that drill/march is the sure foundation of discipline and grit in battle—those who march ‘in-step’ with the perfect coordination, josh and stance also acquit themselves honourably in the thick of battle. Therefore, professional militaries typically ‘march’ better than ragtag militias or forces lacking the rigour and steel of training and regimentation.
As part of public or restricted parades, marchpasts boost the morale of the citizenry in terms of the confidence that the optics and the atmospherics generated by its Armed Forces, as also onto the marching tolli (contingent) themselves, as they proudly assert their clearly distinguishable elements of their service/corps/regimental Uniforms. It is a moment of reciprocal dignity and celebration. Since the first Republic Day parade on 26th Jan 1950, when Brig Moti Sagar led the parade and laid the template and standards of the ‘March’ – the tradition continues with the same aplomb in 2023.
From the magnificent sowars of the horsed cavalry regiment ie, President’s Bodyguards flanking the Rashtrapati of India majestically, followed by the 61st Cavalry mounts, to the various other contingents that get paraded on rotation – India’s military grandeur, might and regalia is on full display.
Part past, part future, it is a personification of how the dynamic institution of the Armed Forces seamlessly blends its sacred heritage and traditions with the inevitability of modernity and cutting-edge weaponry and technology. It is a subtle reminder how values are timeless, though expressions and elements could change.
March Cries Are Separate From Propaganda
Last year, one of the finest battalions of the Indian Army ie, 17th Battalion (‘Barhe Chalo’) of the illustrious Rajput Regiment had the singular distinction of ‘marching’ in a uniform from the 50’s. Adorned with the famous maroon and royal blue hackle the handlebar-mustachioed Rajput combatants ‘marched’ fierily as they have done since antiquity, easily curling any enemy’s guts with the war cry ‘Bol Bajrang Bali ki Jai!'
Later the spectacle of the glorious past was followed by platforms like the Advanced Electronically Scanned Array Radar called ‘Uttam’, aerial launched weapons and an Electronic Warfare (EW) Jammer, new generation anti-radiation missile ‘Rudram’ etc, exemplifying how a civilisational land and an ‘institution’ constantly upholds and cherishes its past without attributing ridicule and pejoration to its ‘past’, even if does not match the aesthetic and functional preferences of today. However, this ‘march’ cannot be confused with propagandist military show of force, as sometimes misunderstood.
Republic Day proceedings start with the honouring of those who distinguished themselves with the ‘most conspicuous bravery in the presence of the enemy’ and therefore, getting the highest decoration for valour ie, Param Vir Chakra (for wartime) or Ashok Chakra (during peacetime). Either the combatants themselves or the family members thereof, are accompanied to the Presidential dais with the marching along of senior fellow-combatants of the same paltan as a sign for hallowed camaraderie, esprit-de-corps and above all, collectively as a ‘family’, even in death. The highest in the land, honours the bravest, time stops and the nation watches in silent awe, admiration and respect for the act of the ‘soldier to the nation’, as the citation is read.
Further, the combatants’ ‘march’ with their militaristic accoutrement and unmistakable wherewithal on the Rajpath and salute solely to the Commander-in-Chief of the land, the Rashtrapati of India, it reconfirms and reiterates the principle of civilian control of the military, as it should, in all participative democracies.
This signifies the legitimate, moral, and desired relationship between the two structures in a liberal democracy. Equally the singular salute to the necessarily apolitical and constitutional post of the President of India and not to any other governmental official is a deliberate framework to avoid the reckless appropriation, political usurpation, and taint to the institution of the Armed Forces, onto any partisan flag or colour.
By practice, within the Armed Forces the soldier instinctively salutes the flag on the car and not necessarily the individual within, as the individuals/occupants come and go, the flag and everything that it embodies within, is always permanent. Similarly, governments come and go, the soldier must abide solely by the holiest of holy book ie, the Constitution of India and its ‘conscience keeper’, the Rashtrapati of India. Such understanding is critical to avoid the pitfalls of politicising the Armed Forces as got risked with Donald Trump repeatedly and ignorantly addressing ‘my generals’ and ‘my military’, suggesting a misguided sense of ownership over the apolitical institution of the Armed Forces.
The Tall Standing of Armed Forces in Civil Society
Year after year, the Armed Forces have emerged as the most respected institution in civil society in countless surveys, and as the most concerted and deliberate display of the Military wherewithal onto the citizenry at large via the Republic Day parade, the subliminal impact of the ‘march’ cannot be discounted.
The running sight and rollcall of contingents from the most diverse recruitments and affiliations eg, Naga Regiment, Madras Regiment, Sikh Light Infantry, Jammu & Kashmir Rifles, Assam Regiment, Gorkha Regiment etc, at least, temporarily provides a reassuring confidence and reality check on all those who defend the land, what they look like or even the gods that they may individually believe in, yet do not think twice to protect and enhance the pride of the Tiranga (Tricolour).
Many lazy perceptions, politically created divides and dangerous mistrust on ‘some’ from the diversity that is naturally and thankfully India, is subliminally and powerfully addressed. The synchronised marches are not only a masterclass in discipline, teamwork, unity and patriotism, but also aspirational in terms of positing restraint, constitutionality and dignity that needs no theatrical passions, aggressive taunts or reckless jingoism.
As the opening and closing stanza of ‘Qadam qadam badhaye ja’ that invariably resonates in the air with Military bands accompanying the march insist, “Qadam qadam badhaye ja, Khushi ke geet gayey ja, yeh zindagi hai quam ki, to quam pe lautayey ja” (keep stepping, stepping forward, keep singing songs of happiness! Your life belongs to the people, spend it in their servitude!). Ultimately, that is why the soldiers have always marched, and will continue to march.
(The author is a Former Lt Governor of Andaman & Nicobar Islands and Puducherry. 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.)