Time to Rescue 'Pandrah Agast' from the Drab Ritual of Independence Day

The spontaneity of celebration has withered. Independence is projected as a point in time, not as a continuum. In Old Delhi, though, the day still stands for true festivity.

How many of us will greet each other with ‘Happy Independence Day!’ today? Pandrah Agast  (August 15) is how it is referred to, just as Republic Day is called Chhabees Janvari  (January 26). Looked at in another way, it marks the tapering-off of the monsoon, and the onset of the long ‘festive season’ – Onam, Rakhi, Eid-al Adha, Dussehra, Diwali, Christmas…

Photographs show us that on August 15, 1947, all Delhi was outdoors, crowding outside the Lal Qila, and in New Delhi scrambling up the Secretariat steps to take ownership of Raisina Hill. That spontaneity has withered away. Independence is projected as the culmination in 1947 of the efforts of individuals, not as a continuum. Political insecurity has meant that we only ‘celebrate’ those national heroes who were active before 1947. A sad commentary on a democracy which has lived 71 years! A vibrant democracy should have the maturity to celebrate even those one disagrees with in any respect.

I just checked to see how I could celebrate this special day. Under ‘celebrations’ was listed the prime minister’s political harangue (attended by a tidy audience of people in chairs), and songs by schoolchildren, who are arranged in a white expanse, with some in green and saffron picking out the words ‘JAI BHARAT’. They form a large flat poster, to be seen by the prime minister and his men on the ramparts, and by high-flying birds. The heady mixture of the prime minister’s stirring words, the children singing the national anthem and the tramp of military boots is supposed to generate patriotism which will last us a year.

The rest of the day is a long holiday. Food takes over. NDTV suggests brightly that we either cook a special meal (recipes provided) or invite friends to brunch. Oh, and there are bound to be ‘patriotic’ films on TV. Later, one can stagger out and fly kites. The last suggestion is truly brilliant – the channel suggests “just sleeping and getting ready for Thursday”.

On August 16, conversation will be about what the prime minister said, what he meant, how his pagdi was a different colour from the one he wore last year.

Also read: How Can We Understand India’s Fractured Independence?

Both the Republic Day parade and the Lal Qila event celebrate military strength. Independence Day, in particular, is solemn. Laughter and happiness are nowhere to be seen.  The French and the Americans say it with magnificent fireworks displays and open-air concerts. The one part of Delhi where Pandrah Agast stands for true festivity is Shahjahanabad. The crowds that gather on the rooftops as kites are unfurled, the animated contests, the biryani lunch that follows, gives it a happy community character.

If India’s strength is yuva urja (energy of the youth), as the hoardings keep reminding us, can’t that be the burden of the Independence Day spirit? Can’t our college students be asked to design grand and joyous celebrations – with tea and samosa all round, and motichoor laddus and tricolor barfis for all the children of the country. (Why is it that the only time we see photographs of laddus is when one politician is stuffing it into the mouth of another).

It is time for another struggle to free the spirit of Pandrah Agast from the straitjacket of an official, and officious, observance of Independence Day.

Narayani Gupta is a historian.