The marching glory
The solemnity of the Beating Retreat as a parade must be meticulously upheld.
Although nowadays, the Beating Retreat is purely a ceremonial parade, it originated as an operational necessity during the wars of the past. By nightfall, a signal was sent: break contact with the enemy, stop fighting, post night sentries and tend to those killed and injured in the day's battle. In the 16th century, the drum was the primary means of battlefield communication. All signalling was conveyed by the drummer standing close to his commander and simple orders, such as the wakeup call at dawn, advance, assemble, stand-to and retreat were conveyed by set beating or rolls of the drum.
In later years, Beating Retreat developed into a routine event in barrack life. With the bugle replacing the drum as a method of communication in the camp, 'Retreat' came to be sounded daily at 6 pm or at sunset. In Scottish Regiments, it became the custom for the Retreat Call "Sunset" to be followed by a single piper playing the Regimental Retreat. The ceremony of Beating Retreat denoted the end of the working day in peace or battle during the war, guard mounting and tending to the dead and injured, if in war. Since the formation of bagpiper bands in the 19th century, the pipes and drums and military bands of regiments joined the ceremony to add spectacle, colour and poignancy to an event of ceremonial significance in the lives of all soldiers. While it is a ceremony with pomp and intricate military drill parade movements to the beat and martial tunes by military bands, evoking pride; what is absolutely intrinsic to it is solemnity.
In the Indian Army, every infantry battalion is authorised a pipes and drums band comprising regular soldiers of the medical platoon. All other corps and regimental centres have brass bands, larger in size as they involve many different musical instruments. Buglers are common to all units. While the calls of Reveille at daybreak and Retreat at sunset are played on the bugle 24x7 to date in all Indian Army units countrywide, the Beating Retreat ceremony at Vijay Chowk on every January 29 became institutionalised since the 1950s. Choreographed to smart, graceful military drill movements in step with the drumbeats of a composite Army, Navy and Air Force band, it was considered as exemplarily spectacular, solemn and overall very impressive, not only by the Indian military and the public but also by foreign armed forces, particularly the British and all Commonwealth countries, all of whose chiefs of missions and defence attaches in Delhi viewed it.
As the Indian Army spokesperson in 1993-98 and even after retirement, I received many requests from the foreign media to arrange for passes to witness the Beating Retreat or for video recordings of the same. In 1975 the ceremony was shown live on BBC.
While initially, all the martial tunes were British or European, over the years changes towards Indianisation were made with new martial music compositions by Indian military composers and even patriotic songs like Saare Jahaan Se Achhaa and a number of others which jelled well. Kadam Kadam Badhaye Jaa, the song of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose's Indian National Army introduced at the behest of former Army Chief and Member of Parliament General Shankar Roychowdhury in the 1990s, turned out to be quite popular. All these tunes fit very well as marching tunes and none of them affected the solemnity or military parade procedure of the Beating Retreat. However, since at least 2016, some changes began to be made in the Beating Retreat, but the changes seen in the recent 2018 version, stood out as deviations—too jarring and totally out of place, leaving the large community of Armed Forces veterans and serving personnel seething with indignation. While the serving personnel have not expressed their resentment publicly, military veterans countrywide have lambasted whoever responsible for what they have reportedly expressed as, "squatting tabalchis, hip-swinging drummers, and Bollywood-style trumpeteers".
"I am ashamed to say and depressed to see that despite my public objection to the changing of the format two years ago, things have only got worse….. Bringing the sitar, tabla, violin is all fine for shows or concerts, not on a military parade. The Retreat is a parade. It has dignity and sanctity. You cannot reduce it to a tamasha," former Army Vice Chief Lt Gen Vijay Oberoi, was quoted to have said to the media.
Maj Karun Khanna (Retd), a veteran of the 1965 and 1971 wars and the inter-services coordinator for the ceremony from 1974 to 1976, lamented, "I am ashamed that the armed forces allowed this tamasha…. Is this what the globally appreciated Indian Armed Forces' Beating Retreat has been reduced to? How can you violate the sanctity and solemnity of this event signifying the valour and sacrifices of our Armed Forces for seven decades now? It is ridiculous….Today it has been reduced to a nautanki with some unrecognisable music, out of tune and disrespectful to the solemnity of a Retreat," he said.
The Indian Armed Forces bands have regaled audiences all over the country and in friendly foreign countries for years. Their versatility has been proven by all three Services' bands having included Indian classical, folk and even film music on Indian musical instruments, but all such music is only played during band concerts, never in parades. And as far as the post-Republic Day Beating Retreat is concerned, its solemnity must be maintained all the more as the Indian Army personnel are being killed at the average of almost one every day in counter-terrorist operations in Jammu and Kashmir, the North-East and in United Nations foreign missions.
India's image improving in the international arena and the ambit of its strategic cooperation widening substantially is just one more strong reason necessitating the correct and impressive projection of its Armed Forces. Prime Minister Narendra Modi has not only been praising the role of India's Armed Forces in the country, but has also been very visibly involved in honouring the Indian military personnel's sacrifices during World Wars (WW) I and II in foreign countries, where the reputation of the Indian military is being acknowledged even a century later. Since 2014, all Allied nations have been paying tribute to the sacrifices made by Indian personnel during the WW I.
Whatever deviations have been mentioned and justifiably severely criticised by veterans and the discerning public must be eliminated. Civilian officials in the Defence Ministry's ceremonials directorate must be well aware of a bit of military history and guiding principles of instituting procedures in military parades and should not pass instructions which amount to dilution of the important aspect of solemnity. The Army headquarters ceremonials directorate must advise the Ministry or raise the level if necessary.
Much good for the Services is being expected from Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. As the Defence Minister, a major aspect is her frequent interaction with many of her foreign counterparts. Beating Retreat parades are noticed by the armed forces of all countries, particularly those of the Commonwealth, whose attaches in Delhi witness it. Besides, its television coverage involves a wide audience. The Defence Minister must ensure that the sanctity of military parades is maintained and that despite their competence, the Indian Armed Forces do not become a laughing stock only because of such visible aberrations in military ceremonials.
(The author is former Indian Army spokesperson. The views expressed are strictly personal.)