“At the stroke of the midnight hour, when the world sleeps, India will awake to life and freedom. A moment comes, which comes but rarely in history, when we step out from the old to the new, when an age ends, and when the soul of a nation, long suppressed, finds utterance.”
– Jawaharlal Nehru
Today is Independence Day. Sixty-eight years prior to midnight of last night, the British flag was lowered over the Lahori Gate of the Red Fort in Delhi, and Mr. Nehru, India’s first prime minister, raised the flag of a new nation and spoke of India’s “tryst with destiny.”
How do Indians celebrate this day? Generally, they sleep in, spend time with their families, and fly kites from their houses. However, there is a ceremony held at the Red Fort at 7 AM in which the Indian Prime Minister inspects a regiment, raises the flag over the fort, and addresses the nation. As a political nerd, I simply could not resist attempting to go to the Red Fort to watch this ceremony.
Two other Fulbright fellows and I woke up at 3 AM and, walking from our hotel on Barakhamba Road, we wound our way through the cramped streets of Old Delhi to find our way to the Red Fort. Old Delhi is a tangled nest of makeshift shops, knots of power cords, zipping motorbikes, weaving autos and rickshaws, lazing street animals, and all manners of humanity. We walked by sweat-soaked beggars sleeping on dirty rugs, tea shops installed extemporaneously on the street, kite salesmen hawking their wares, dogs mating furiously, and energetic passersby carrying Indian flags and flag-colored hats. The Muslim call to prayer echoed through the twisting alleyways. Every so often, a whiff of animal or human feces overtook us before mercifully melting away.
Security for this event was very thorough; there were concerns that Pakistani agents might try to set off a bomb. Everyone had to walk through four security checkpoints, and at each the Indian police patted us down comprehensively. Unfortunately when we reached the third checkpoint, a policeman told me and and one of my companions that we could not bring our mobile phones into the event, and turned us away. We went back to talk to other policemen about this, who said we could register and leave our phones at the nearby police station. Many Indians who were also turned away for carrying their mobile phones arrived with us at the Jama Masjid police station. The station commander, a plump man with silvery hair and a prominent mustache, irritatedly waved us away, telling the crowd that there was no way they could register all these mobile phones at the police station. We waited to see if they might be more generous once the crowd dissipated, but the police warily eyed the hangers-on. It looked for a moment like we might have to turn back if we didn’t want to abandon our phones.
One of my companions went back through security and successfully shamed a more senior police officer to come back to the station with us. The other mobile phone rejects had walked away from the police station, leaving just us foreigners with the police. Frantic phone calls were made to superiors, and questions were asked about which codes should be listed for proper registration. At long last, we placed the phones in the policeman’s desk and received an official receipt with the police station’s stamp and phone number.
When we finally arrived at the field beneath the Red Fort at 6:45 AM, we were pleased to find seats neatly arrayed facing the main gate and packs of water on tables. We took our seats facing the center and waited for the show to begin. On large screens in front of the fort, a dramatic video played showing a mix of historical photos, natural scenery, and heroic military maneuvers. The narrator of the video was intermittently interrupted by the barking orders of a commander along the top of the fort. The camera zoomed in on the VIP section of the crowd. There was Manmohan Singh, India’s previous prime minister, and there was Sonia Gandhi, head of the Indian National Congress Party. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, garbed in a golden Nehru vest and sporting an orange turban, pulled up in a black Mercedes motorcade and began walking a long red carpet to the regiment to inspect it. Behind us attendees that arrived too late to be seated bellowed their frustration in coordinated chants.
Mr. Modi then arrived at the summit of the fort, and all rose as he hoisted the Indian flag while the military band played the Indian national anthem (“Jana Gana Mana”). Then he launched into his speech, which one of my companions said was done without notes by tradition.
I do not speak Hindi, but one of the fellows I was with does, and the young man sitting next to me also translated some of the speech into English. Modi spoke of the importance of India’s diversity, and how its many languages, religions, and cultures make it a stronger nation. He spoke of the many toilets that had been installed under his administration, and humorously reminded his countrymen to please use them. He spoke of the need to eradicate poverty in India, and cracked jokes about how previous government had not delivered on their promises. Mr. Modi is a spirited orator, and has an incredibly charismatic presence. He began his speech slowly, authoritatively, pausing often to emphasize a point, before steadily increasing his energy level and gesturing more enthusiastically towards the crowd. We left early to avoid the exiting crowds, but I could have watched much longer.
A smooth return visit to the police station and auto ride later, we ate breakfast and retired to our rooms. A quiet day now. Everything is shut down. We will fly kites this evening.
This coming week, I am moving into the neighborhood of Lajpat Nagar, along the Violet line and next to Delhi’s largest market. There’s a lot to say about our apartment, our landlords, and our neighborhood, but I’ll save that for another post.