Nehru, Diversity, and the Origins of India's Republic Day Parades
Excerpts from Historian Srirupa Roy's Work
We are so used to seeing the fun Republic Day parades since childhood that we hardly pause to think where and how exactly all of that came to be. The bare minimum we are told is that the revered Constitution of India came into effect on January 26 1950, and the parade celebrations commemorate that event. But one is still left wondering about why the specific format and content of the celebrations. Historian Srirupa Roy’s book ‘Beyond Belief: India and the Politics of Postcolonial Nationalism‘ provides us a lot of helpful answers.
Note: Everything that comes after is reproduced from Srirupa Roy’s book
The ﬁrst Republic Day celebrations of the postcolonial period were held at the Irwin Stadium [now Major Dhyan Chand National Stadium] in Delhi on January 26, 1951, to mark the ﬁrst anniversary of the Indian republic. The day was marked by ﬂag-raising ceremonies and by the singing of the national song. [In the New Delhi celebration] processions by the armed forces and ﬂy-pasts by planes of the Indian Air Force were integrated. The following year the Republic Day celebrations in Delhi began with a morning parade on Rajpath. The parade consisted of a military display of forces and weapons, as well as a cultural pageant.
This military-cultural blend was the product of a deliberate decision taken by the state. As Ashfaque Husain, the joint-secretary of the department of education, stated: ‘Whereas other countries, on similar occasions, hold impressive military parades which are calculated to give to the whole world an idea of the armed might of the country, we have combined the ceremonial military parade with the cultural pageant, which signiﬁes that this young Republic values cultural progress no less than military strength.’
Nehru suggested that the cultural pageant on Republic Day should be preceded by a cultural festival in various locations throughout the country, with ‘performances, displays and exhibitions showing something not only of our cultural heritage but also of our cultural progress in the widest sense of the term.’ Special attention was given to displaying and promoting the culture of what Nehru understood as neglected groups, such as folk performers from the nation’s peripheries along with tribal artistes. The focus on folk culture was not just part of an effort to invent a common cultural tradition for post independence India but also one that enabled the state to present itself as the guardian and the benefactor of all minority groups…
As Nehru noted in 1952: ‘In regard to folk dancing, we can hardly hope to get folk dances from all over India. That would be too expensive a business. We might, therefore, select some areas from which they will be invited. The next year other areas can be invited. It should be clearly understood that we have no amateur dancing. We must have the original stuff.’
Finally, Nehru viewed the cultural pageant as an occasion to display the cultural diversity of India. As he stated, ‘The concept of this procession and exhibition and everything else should be to demonstrate both the unity and great variety and diversity of India . . . Each State could represent some distinctive feature of its own in the tableaux or in the exhibition or both. Thus the procession would be a moving pageant of India in its rich diversity.’
In 1952, the cultural pageant consisted of a series of tableaux representing the cultural diversity of India, where each tableau depicted the inhabitants of a particular state engaged in a distinctive cultural practice indigenous to a speciﬁc area, such as a religious festival, a dance, or a wedding ceremony. In sum, by deﬁning Indian culture in terms of its intrinsic diversity rather than its homogeneity, the cultural pageant on Republic Day presented the Indian nation as truly sovereign, as an expression of collective free will.
Nehru’s proposals for the cultural pageant were incorporated into the Republic Day parade of the following year, 1953, and the cultural displays subsequently became a familiar feature of the ritual repertoire of January 26. Feature articles in special issues about Republic Day noted how several participants in the parade were visiting the capital city of New Delhi for the ﬁrst time in their lives, thereby both literally and ﬁguratively charting unexplored territory in the course of their journey from ‘‘remote hamlets’’ to the ‘‘center of the nation.’’ The journalist Amita Malik’s account of her interactions with folk dancers who had traveled to Delhi to participate in the Republic Day celebrations of 1960 is just one such example…
‘And how do you like Delhi?’ I asked the leader of the Hyderabad dance party.
‘Oh, it is big, very big,’ he replied with awe in his soft South Indian voice. ‘Our village is very small,’ he apologized, ‘and this is the ﬁrst time we have left it.’
‘We shall tell the people in our village,’ said a shriveled old man with a white enormous turban, ‘that Delhi is so big that you need four eyes to see it.. They will never believe us when we tell them that Delhi is so big.’
‘They will never believe us,’ added the young boy, ‘when we tell them that we saw Panditji too.’
By 1960, the parade on Rajpath had become the most important public function on January 26. Even though other kinds of commemorative activities continued to be organized by both state and nonstate groups in Delhi and in other parts of the nation, the ‘‘national parade’’ received the maximum press coverage, and All India Radio broadcast a live audio commentary of the parade every year. A formal committee structure and ﬁxed organizational procedures were now associated with the parade, and an interministerial committee comprised of representatives from the Ministry of Defence and the Department of Culture began its preparatory work six months prior to the date.
The duration of the parade had been increased, now lasting approximately two and a half hours. In contrast to the relatively free-form and evolving structure of the initial parades, the celebrations were now formally scripted. Like three separate acts in a play that are related to each other but also stand on their own, the festivities were divided into three distinct sections: a military display, a cultural display, and a display by and of schoolchildren. There was, however, room for variation within this ﬁxed ritual structure; an examination of annual parades over time shows that successive iterations introduce innovations as much as they reproduce familiar and long-standing patterns.