Customs and traditions are an integral part of any army and contribute in building esprit de corps, pride and bonding, so essential a component of the military way of life. Traditions have been loosely defined as the ‘transmission of information, customs and beliefs, from one generation to the other’. Modernity, on the other hand, is more difficult to pin down but is commonly understood as the transformation brought about by changing times. There is, therefore, an essential dichotomy between traditions and modernity, because, while the former revels in and takes pride in preserving and repeating, the latter epitomises change. This churn and turmoil in military traditions of the Indian Army is more profound and telling, as numerous traditions of our army were incorporated during the British rule and were often moored to the culture obtaining in preindependence India. It was therefore no surprise that a lot of hallowed and sacrosanct customs and traditions came to be questioned and were slowly modified or jettisoned by different regiments in their respective time frames. It must however be said with the wisdom of hindsight, that while some may have lost their relevance and rightly became victims of modernity, many others prevailed, or blossomed in a new avatar!
Some very quaint but British influenced traditions died a slow death due tardy adherence while some simply did not fit into the new order of things. Not many young officers of today would recall the healthy tradition and protocol of ‘calling on’. This tradition mandated that in a new station you announced your arrival to senior officers of the station by going to their house fully dressed at a designated time and either left your calling card at the gate, or made an entry of your particulars in a well-designed ‘Calling On’ register maintained at the gate, indicating your desire to meet and then politely left. The master (rather mistress) would then in the next few days contact you and ask you to come over on a specified date for the Darshan!
While this tradition was based on the sound foundation of British regard of privacy and formality, it did not fit into the Indian ethos of open house and was in conflict with the Indian idea of a guest coming to meet you and not being allowed inside! It thus died a natural death after some years and is hardly practised today in the above format. The same happened to English music and serving of continental food on dinner nights. Indian food habits could not blend with a multi course choreographed formal sit-down dinner. However, the tradition was kept alive and adapted by blending and modernising the tradition, to accommodate Indian gastronomical preferences. Dinner nights, where being practised, are a fine example of embracing modernity gracefully. Many such traditions and customs are still intact or have mutated with change of time.
Thus, while modernity will often be at odds with traditions, one can with pragmatism and sagacity get the best of both worlds by preserving traditions and giving them a modern tweak should that be inescapable. However, mindless and shabby tinkering with well-established and respected traditions without due thought is not only a gross disrespect to our past generations but also a body blow to the very ethos of the armed forces. One such example of going too far is the perversion of the ‘Beating Retreat,’ after the Republic Day celebrations, by the massed bands of the Armed Forces. This hallowed and well evolved, precise and solemn military function was this year reduced to ‘B’ grade Bollywood extravaganza. I saw with anguish and gut-wrenching pain, the trivialisation of this awesome military tradition. It was totally unwarranted, and if it was forced down, someone should have stood up and said a resounding NO! The fact that it has without exception, been universally criticised by all veterans and serving officers shows how out of sync this fiddling of a good tradition has been with the entire forces family.
Beating Retreat by massed bands is not the closing ceremony of the Asian or Commonwealth games. Both are distinct and so should be! Similarly, the army mess thank god is not, and never will be a 5 star hotel! We need not ape others to feel good. Let others try and copy us by setting impeccable standards and leading by example. Thus, while military traditions must evolve over time and be flexible, they must modernise with maturity and a touch of class. But diluting and changing perfectly good traditions radically would be a death knell for what this glorious army stands for!