Explore

For whom the guns boom on Republic Day

Praveen Siddharth | Updated on January 25, 2021

Respect roll: Twenty-one shots from seven artillery guns fired in three rounds come at intervals of 2.25 seconds, covering the 52-second duration of the national anthem as it plays on Republic Day   -  IMAGES: RASHTRAPATI BHAVAN ARCHIVES

The story of the 21-gun salute goes back a long way

* The 1911 Durbar proved to be not only a spectacle for the eyes but also a din for the ears

* Princely states whose rulers were accorded gun salutes came to be referred to as the ‘salute states’

* The guns boom now not for our ruler and maharajahs, but for us, the people

***

Listen closely when the President unfurls the national flag on January 26 this year. You will hear the national anthem playing and, in the background, there will be the unmistakable booms of artillery guns firing. Seven artillery guns will be fired in three rounds, at an interval of 2.25 seconds each, to cover the entire 52-second duration of the national anthem. The 21-gun salute, as it is called, has been a constant feature of all our Republic Days — a day of patriotic fervour, parade and celebration. Once upon a time in Delhi, these guns were the focal point of all eyes. So much so that people were employed by the Indian maharajas to listen carefully and count the exact number of shots that were fired from their barrels. After all, it was a measure of their public stature and therefore serious business.

Behold the sight: The 21-gun salute, as it is called, has been a constant feature of all our Republic Days

 

The story of the 21-gun salute goes back to over 150 years.

Under the British, Delhi witnessed three occasions of unabashed displays of colonial power and grandeur. These were the so called ‘imperial durbars’ or assemblages that were held in 1877, 1903 and 1911. Viceroy Lord Lytton organised the first of the Durbars in 1877 in Delhi at a place now known as ‘Coronation park’. This durbar was held on January 1, 1877, and a proclamation was read out to all the Indian maharajas and princes gathered to announce Queen Victoria as the Empress of India. Similar durbars were held on two other occasions — when a new monarch was crowned in England. The durbar of 1911 was particularly significant due to the presence of King George V and Queen Mary who reviewed a parade of 50,000 British and Indian troops that is said to have stretched over 5 km.

The durbars were organised primarily with the intention of ensuring the loyalty of the Indian princes. As Robert Gascoigne, the secretary of state for India, wrote to then British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli in 1867, the maharajahs were “the only ones over whom we can hope to establish any useful influence”. At the same time, these durbars also became the jostling arenas where the maharajas would manoeuvre for a favourable position in the imperial hierarchy. One of the principal indicators of status in the hierarchy was the gun salute. The East India Company decided who among Indian princes were entitled to a gun salute of 11 or more, and that only they were to be addressed as “His Highness”.

Until 1877, there were no standards for how many guns salutes were to be accorded. Although the Viceroy enjoyed 31-gun salutes, a limit bound by the East India Company, rulers of some princely states decreed higher salutes within their home turf. The Maharaja of Gwalior, for instance, used to receive more gun salutes than the Viceroy while in Gwalior.

During the durbar of 1877, a new order was issued by the Viceroy, on advice of the British government in London, whereby the gun salute for the British monarch was fixed at 101 and for the Viceroy of India, 31. All Indian rulers were arranged in hierarchies of 21-, 19-, 17-, 15-, 11- and 9-gun salutes, depending on their relationship with the British Raj.

The 1911 Durbar proved to be not only a spectacle for the eyes but also a din for the ears. With more than one hundred Indian rulers attending, the canons were firing almost the entire day. Only three princely states were given the highest honour of 21-gun salutes: The Maharaja Gaekwad of Baroda State, the Maharaja of Mysore and the Nizam of Hyderabad. The name of the Maharaja Scindia of Gwalior was added in 1917, and the Maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir in 1921. These gun salutes came to be such a dominant and defining indicator of status that the princely states whose rulers were accorded gun salutes came to be referred to as the ‘salute states’. At the time of Independence, there were about 118 salute states among the 565 in our country. The system of salute states continued until 1971, when privy purses were abolished.

Chariots of fire: On January 26, 1950, after Dr Rajendra Prasad was sworn in as the first President of India, he drove down from the Rashtrapati Bhavan to the Irwin amphitheater in a gold-plated horse drawn buggy to receive a 31-gun salute

 

On January 26, 1950, after Dr Rajendra Prasad was sworn in as the first President of India, he drove down from the Rashtrapati Bhavan to the Irwin amphitheatre (now Major Dhyanchand stadium), in a gold-plated horse drawn buggy to receive, for the first time, a 31-gun salute accorded to our own President. Eventually, 21 became an international norm. After 1971, the 21-gun salute came to be the highest honour accorded to our President and visiting heads of state. Apart from the salute being given whenever a new President is sworn in, it is also given on select occasions such as the Republic day.

Attention: Apart from the salute being given whenever a new President is sworn in, it is also given on select occasions such as the Republic day

 

Over time, the symbolism of the gun salute has also changed. The salute now no longer denotes position in a colonial hierarchy. Rather, the salute is now an acknowledgement of the sovereignty of our people. When the guns boom during the national anthem on Republic day, their sound is a mark of respect both to our President as the head of our state and to our national flag. The guns boom now not for our ruler and maharajahs, but for us, the people.

(Head Quarters is an occasional column on the story of the Rashtrapati Bhavan)

Praveen Siddharth is Private Secretary to the President of India at Rashtrapati Bhavan

Published on January 25, 2021

Follow us on Telegram, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and Linkedin. You can also download our Android App or IOS App.

This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor