New Delhi: A series of changes introduced by the military in formal public ceremonies have confused veterans who worry that the new elements detract from the gravitas and solemnity of the events.
Actor Akshay Kumar takes a selfie with army chief Dalbir Singh Suhag and others on board the INS Sumitra
The latest is the inaugural of the international fleet review (IFR) where the Indian Navy saluted President Pranab Mukherjee, the supreme commander of the armed forces, at sea off Visakhapatnam today.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi, defence minister Manohar Parrikar and the chiefs of the army, navy and the air force, Gen. Dalbir Singh Suhag, Adm. Robin Dhowan and Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, respectively, were also on board the INS Sumitra, that was designated the "Presidential Yacht".
Who else was there?
Actor Akshay Kumar and his son.
On board the ship, from which the President reviewed a fleet of 92 ships that included 24 foreign warships from 21 countries, Akshay clicked a "selfie" with Gen. Suhag, the army chief.
Prime Minister Modi playfully pulled the ears of Akshay's son. The actor proudly posted the picture on photo-sharing social website Instagram.
Last evening, at the INS Satavahana, a land station of the Indian Navy in Visakhapatnam, actor Kangana Ranaut shared the dais with Adm. Dhowan, the chief of naval staff, and the chief of the Eastern Naval Command, Vice-Adm. Satish Soni. Akshay and Kangana have been designated "brand ambassadors" for IFR 2016.
At the event, organised mainly for visiting foreign naval personnel, Shiamak Davar's dance troupe gyrated to Bollywood music.
"Next time, it will be bar girls," a former soldier, Arun Govil, wrote sarcastically on Facebook in a comment on a post that questioned the "Bollywoodisation" of the military.
An international fleet review is being held in India after 15 years. The navy believes that the occasion demands that visiting sailors be treated as honoured guests and be given a glimpse of what Indian culture has to offer. Not only did Davar perform, the guests were also shown performances of classical dances like Kuchipudi, said navy sources.
The evening was a time to relax after the labours of the day and before the next day's demanding routine. Today's events showcase the Indian Navy's capabilities, said navy sources. They included, apart from the steam past, a display by Marine Commandos, water skiing and overflights by fighter planes and helicopters.
"As the Presidential Yacht passed between the review anchor columns, each ship dressed in full regalia, saluted the President. Each ship was manned by her ship's company, dressed in white ceremonial uniform. In a moment that stood still in time, white caps were doffed in unison in a grand salutation," a navy statement said describing the review.
This was the 11th fleet review for the President by the Indian Navy - only the second that is "international". An international fleet review is an assembly of warships without belligerent intention, says the official brochure for IFR 2016.
A picture posted on Instagram by Akshay Kumar shows Narendra Modi playfully pulling the ear of the actor’s son on board the INS Sumitra during the international fleet review in waters off Visakhapatnam on Saturday
In the first IFR in 2001, there were more foreign warships - 29, as compared to 24 this year. The representation from navies, 54, this time is significantly more. Most of the foreign navies sent delegations, not ships. Also, the Indian Navy is hosting the Chinese Navy, with two frigates, in such a ceremony for the first time.
Pakistan was invited to the IFR but did not respond. The waters in which the IFR is being held are the same where the Pakistan submarine, PNS Ghazi, was destroyed in the 1971 war.
There are conflicting accounts on how that happened. Some navy sources insist it was sunk by Indian Navy depth charges. Others say it hit the ground for not having mapped the coastline. It was not till some of its debris floated that the Indian Navy knew there was a Pakistani submarine lurking just outside Visakhapatnam.
The navy's current showcasing of India's military might and Indian culture apart, military veterans are most indignant over the "Beating Retreat" ceremony on January 29.
The ceremony owes its tradition to the end of a day's battle rituals where the armies would return to camps picking their way through the dead and the wounded. In India, "Beating Retreat" usually signifies the end of the military ceremonies surrounding Republic Day.
This year, "Beating Retreat" included for the first time "non-martial" instruments such as the sitar and the tabla, performed by uniformed soldiers who were in a static position. They were seated in rows on ramps. This is highly uncharacteristic for marching contingents that play martial music in honour of the dead, to build camaraderie and to enthuse soldiers for the hardships ahead.
Former vice chief of army staff, Lt Gen. Vijay Oberoi, was so aghast that he wrote an open letter to the three service chiefs that was titled, "Sirs, I am disillusioned and devastated".
Lt Gen. Oberoi lost a leg in the 1965 war with Pakistan and rose to be vice-chief of the army in the years 2000-2001. He heads an association of the war wounded.
He wrote that the "Beating Retreat" ceremony was reduced to a " tamasha" of sorts.
"I need not remind you worthies that traditions are the core of the Indian military and flouting them on account of pressures/requests from political and other bosses amount to letting down the troops whom you lead," he wrote to the chiefs.
He said that soldiers would do whatever their superiors wanted "but please do note that they will do so only if the orders are legitimate and legal and not to please your bosses or others".
If military musicians adept at playing symphonies had to play popular tunes, they should do so on an occasion that was not a military ceremony like "Beating Retreat".
The former vice-chief was also angry that a marching contingent of retired soldiers was not included in the Republic Day parade this year. This is a particularly sensitive issue for the Modi administration that this week notified "one rank one pension" but is still unable to convince former soldiers that it has kept an election promise.
Lt Gen. Oberoi wrote to the service chiefs: "You may be fully committed to your bosses, but why have you become such 'Ji Huzoors' that you have now forgotten even your comrades in arms, who incidentally were at least partly responsible for assisting you to reach the present high appointments you hold!"
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