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The ascension of King Charles to the throne and last rites of Queen Elizabeth were conducted meticulously as per the traditions followed for centuries. Be it the soldiers attired in old uniforms, pulling of funeral gun carriage by naval ratings or ceremonial display of vintage weapons, the British have always exhibited their unerring veneration for adhering to traditions and symbolic ceremonies.

Most of our institutions inherited British traditions and continued with them for some time post independence. Gradually deviations were made and many of these customs were discontinued, questioning their very relevance. However, one institution that continued with legacy customs in letter and spirit was the armed forces.

It takes an endless amount of history to make even a little tradition. Be it the Guard of Honour to visiting dignitaries, Beating Retreat ceremony, 21-gun salute by ships visiting foreign ports to host country’s flag or Air Force’s fly past, the civilians are often mystified by these acts of “colonial legacy”. But to a soldier, sailor or airman, these customs are solemn with deep meaning and association and not mere buzz words.

Every regiment has its unique traditions and the regimental spirit anchored on this heritage possesses its soldiers in the face of enemy. He fights for his regiment or battalion, more than he does for anything else. He swears by the battle honours won by his regimental ancestors irrespective of the enemy they fought against. Every accoutrement on his ceremonial uniform has a story to tell. Those not conversant with military ethos may construe it as an act of disloyalty, but these intangibles have kept him going in demanding times. Quoting Napoleon, a soldier will fight long and hard for a bit of colored ribbon.

Today, anything associated with the colonial past is frowned upon and efforts are underway to do away with the legacy practices that remind us of slavery. Rechristening of names, modification of ensigns and insignias, Indianisation of hymns and band tunes, etc are gaining nationalistic validation. Even the pre-independence soldiers are colloquially being called mercenaries with their battle honours viewed with scorn.

‘Old order changeth yielding place to new’; change is the law of nature and customs rooted in colonial past stand little chance against the clamor vocalizing nationalism. It may not be a distant reality to see the end of horsed cavalry, custom of the toast, officer mess procedures, colonial instruments like bagpipes or region based regimental system.

But do we really need to despise everything that is alien? Traditions seldom weaken a system; they rather strengthen it in the hour of peril. An army can be raised in weeks and trained within months; but it takes decades to form a tradition. Would it be prudent to tweak a system that has delivered all this while not once letting the country down? Tradition is certainly not the worship of ashes; it is but preservation of fire.

Ours is not to reason why, ours is but to do and die; Irrespective of the winds of change, Indian soldier will continue to march as smartly to tune of ‘Saare Jahaan se achha Hindustan Hamara’, as he would have done to ‘Colonel Bogey March’.

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