By 6 am, the labyrinthine streets of Old Delhi leading to Red Fort were lined with tri-colours. Children ran excitedly with kites and old men lined up in front of small televisions. But it was the people, flowing purposefully towards the fort, that presented the most striking picture.
In less than an hour, the seats at Red Fort were almost completely filled. Yet people continued to stream in.
Many had travelled from far and wide to witness the event on Saturday. “I have come from Kochi with my family. Every year, we watch the proceedings on television. But this year, we decided to come here and witness the historic occasion,” said Vibhuti Nair, a software engineer.
At 7.30 am, Prime Minister Narendra Modi unfurled the tricolor, as the sea of people burst into loud cheers.
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Modi began his speech by talking about diversity and the need for continued unity in the country. Among the audience, this unity was abundantly apparent — they came from across the country, and belonged to different castes and religions. Nizam Ahmed, a student from Aligarh Muslim University and who hails from Delhi said, “It’s not so much a question of political parties. But being here, being a part of this, is something that transcends any other form of identity.”
Like his maiden Independence Day speech last year, Modi once again chose to deliver his speech without a bulletproof glass shielding him. This time too, he wore a characteristic turban. But despite the many similarities to his first speech, the response from the audience was muted in the beginning.
Even as Modi recounted the achievements of his government in the first 45 minutes, the morning grew progressively warm and stuffy. Handkerchiefs and newspapers were transformed into hand-held fans.
At 8:20, as Modi spoke about the need for transparency, a ripple of excitement passed through the gathering. “He is right. Corruption is the most important problem eating our society,” said Raghuveer Chauhan, a Delhi University student. He was soon countered by another DU student, Amit Maity. “What about the scams of his own party people? He’s stayed quiet about that,” Amit said.
However, many people began leaving minutes before the speech ended. Some said they wanted to avoid the traffic, while others said they simply couldn’t take the heat. A few, however, said they were disappointed with the speech. “I had really hoped that he would say something more definitive on the one rank-one pension issue. My father is an ex-serviceman and he had come last year. This year, he decided not to come,” said Vrinda Sabherwal.
By the time Modi finished his speech at 9 am, the sky above the fort was punctuated by a multitude of kites. More debates, some good-humoured and others not so much, continued. Different issues that Modi touched upon had sparked off conversations and discussions between friends and complete strangers. As the Independence Day celebrations drew to a close, these independent debates continued.
Short takes: From in and around red fort
* Students from as many as 45 government schools were present at Red Fort, from 4 am. “All they had to do was clap,” informed a teacher. For their efforts, they got a banana, mango juice and a water bottle.
* Parking remained a big problem for many. While official parking slots had been designated, many claimed that police were unhelpful and pointed them in directions away from the venue. “I didn’t reach in time for the speech and only caught the last part. This was because a police officer near ITO told me that there was parking near Asaf Ali Road. What he didn’t tell me was that there was no way to get to the venue from there,” said Satish Duggal, a Delhi-based engineer.
* Auto fares doubled and rickshaw fares quadrupled at Delhi 6, hours before Modi’s speech began. One rickshaw puller said, “It’s only on days like this that our knowledge of the streets here help. We know every nook and corner. So even if they barricade the main routes, we can use lesser-known byways.”
* When the PM’s speech started, only some of the shops at Jama Masjid’s Meena Bazaar were open. Among them was an iconic tea shop opposite the main entrance of the market. With the TV set blaring and tea flowing, many tourists decided that this was a unique experience that couldn’t be ignored. Photos and selfies inevitably followed.
* As two men charged money for painting the tricolour on people’s cheeks, a passer-by commented, “Aaj ke din bhi loot rahe hain”. This immediately attracted the ire of others in the crowd. Another man asked, “Aaj ke din 10 rupaye dena loot hai, par 400 rupaye ki sharaab pee lena theek hai”.
* A man was overheard saying that he had come to the event only to get captured on camera by the many journalists there. Every time he spotted someone with a camera, he ran towards them in full speed.
(With inputs from Abhishek Angad and Aranya Shankar)