Martyrs’ Day marks the anniversary of the day Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi (fondly known to many as Bapu) was shot down by Nathuram Godse on his way to prayers on 30th January 1948. Gandhiji will always be remembered as the father of our nation, whose life was dedicated to the nurture and service of modern India. It was Gandhi who taught us the principles of ahimsa and satyagraha, non-violence and truth; who always held firm to his beliefs and gave us hope that we could live in harmony together at a time when our country was rendered weak and fragile by the trauma of partition. His assassination, only months after independence was declared, was a devastating, heart-wrenching blow for our fledgling nation.
Every year since then, we have commemorated his life, achievement and sacrifice on 30th January. This soon came to be a day to pay respects to others who laid down their lives for the nation. And so it became known as Martyrs’ Day, and has a similar resonance amongst us Indians as Remembrance Day has for the British.
Every year, a solemn and reflective remembrance ceremony takes place, starting with two minutes’ silence at 11.00am. This is followed by a service during which the President of India, the vice-President, the Prime Minister and the chiefs of the Army, Navy and Air Force all lay wreaths at Rajghat (the memorial erected in Gandhiji’s honour, on the banks of the Yamuna in Delhi). The presence of members of the military underlines the fact that Gandhi’s sacrifice – and his principles of non-violence – are no less powerful than the sacrifice of those who physically fought for India’s freedom.
The simple ceremony draws to a close with the sounding of the Last Post. Afterwards, the many communities and faiths of India gather for prayer services, and so are united in paying their respects to the father of the nation and other martyrs.
Martyrs’ Day reminds us that the path to independence has not been smooth, and that human nature is such that we will always be facing forces of darkness in some form. Where there is violence and destruction, there will also be martyrs. But the day should also serve as a reminder that our strength as a nation lies in our capacity to accumulate and live with difference. India is at its greatest when we all celebrate and honour the truth of our extraordinary diversity – of language, religion, culture, values – rather than allow this truth to tear us asunder. In these troubled times, more than ever we must remember the lessons of ahimsa and satyagraha that Bapu taught us.