‘Abide with me, fast falls the eventide

The darkness deepens Lord, with me abide’

-First two verses from the Christian hymn ‘Abide with me’– Henry Francis Lyte

‘Abide with me’ is a Christian hymn composed by Scottish Anglican Henry Francis Lyte in 1847, when he was dying from Tuberculosis.

Through the hymn, the singer pleads for God’s presence throughout life and death. It is sung during Sunday church services in especially those following the Anglican order. It is also sung during prayer gatherings and solemn occasions like funerals and memorials. The hymn through its uplifting words lends hope, comfort and strength to both singers and listeners.  

Apart from controversies regarding exact dating of the text and the circumstances in which the author penned it, a new one recently shrouded the hymn in this part of the world.

On January 26th every year India observes the occasion on which she became a sovereign Republic by holding a grand parade in Rajpath, New Delhi’s ceremonial boulevard. Curtains fall on Republic Day festivities with the ceremonial beating the Retreat three days later. Beating the Retreat originates from a 17-century British tradition.

The ceremony is marked by music and military regalia. ‘Abide With Me’ played by the massed band drawn from Indian Armed Forces finds its place among songs rendered on the solemn occasion.

Why was Abide With Me included in the ceremony? It must have been the favorite of Englishmen who once occupied India. The more compelling reason is that the hymn was the personal favorite of Mahatma Gandhi.

The government of India, for reasons best known to it dropped the hymn from this year’s Beating the Retreat. The government argues that the move is part of its efforts to ‘decolonize India’. To free the country from strings that tether her to her colonial past.

But, certain unpalatable turn of events in today’s India governed by rightwing BJP will have one swallow the above excuse the government offered to drop the hymn from the ceremony with a pinch of salt and a palm scoop of suspicion. Certain incidents have indicated the centre’s efforts not to ‘decolonize’ the nation, but to ‘de-Gandianize’ India. If not, why would temples be constructed in Gwalior to deify Nathuram Godse?

Reactions to non-inclusion of the hymn have ranged from discordance among veterans in the armed forces to that of sentiments of being sidelined among Christians.

A military spokesperson told the BBC that the hymn will be removed from this year’s event to make way for a playlist of Indian tunes. The hymn’s being replaced by a popular patriotic Hindi song- Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon, which commemorates Indian soldiers who perished in the 1962 China war. ‘The song is more connected to mass population because it honors all those who laid down their lives. It’s more appropriate’ said the military sources.

 But others disagree. To them, the hymn, a part of Republic day commemorations since 1950s ought to remain.

 ‘Cutting it out seems like cutting out a piece of tradition and throwing it into the dustbin’ Pavan Nair a retired Army Colonel who served for 30 years told the BBC. Col Nair remembers watching the ceremony as a child, and in later years attending in person.

‘The highlight of it was listening to Abide With Me and hearing the chimes from the ramparts. It was a beautiful, soulful thing’ Nair continued.

‘There is no reason why, after 75 years of independence, we would still have our military bands playing tunes introduced by the British’ Kanchan Gupta, senior advisor to the Ministry of Information and Broadcasting says. ‘The change is part of an ongoing process of decolonizing India. No tradition is free of change or evolution’, he said reiterating the government’s determination.

‘The words are universal, the tune human’, Gandhiji’s grandson Gopalkrishna Gandhi wrote in a newspaper.

‘I do not believe the authorities can be so impervious to the song’s aesthetic, spiritual and human appeal, so insensitive too to the feelings of those who love the hymn. Gandhi loved it’, Manmohan Bahadur, a retired Vice-Marshal agrees that the connection with Gandhi is a reason to hold on to the Colonial-era tune.

Congress’ P. Chidambaram says ‘the BJP government dropped the Christian hymn because of religious politics’.

As controversy over the hymn rages, I, as a Christian see no reason why I should be piqued at the dropping of the hymn from Beating the Retreat. The hymn wasn’t created to be played in the ceremony in the first place. It was penned to serve as an anchor for those caught in life’s storms.

I personally relate to the hymn. I hummed it under labored breaths from my sickbed when I was felled by a stroke at 39. When I, a budding surgeon rendered hemipareitic by the stroke attempted to pick up the pieces when life lay shattered about me. I used to, and still sing ‘O Thou who changest not, abide with me’, a verse from the hymn, whenever I walk into a dark and silent house emptied by the passing of my mother and my daughters leaving home following marriage and securing employment.

‘Abide With me’ will continue to be sung soulfully by the browbeaten, the rudderless, the hopeless, and those cowed down by life’s heavy yoke in their strife to overcome. To overcome with renewed strength and hope.

If Raisina hills will never go to sleep again to Abide With Me played by the military band at Beating the Retreat, it is only the nation’s loss. Nobody else’s.

I shall stand by with every person in this country, not as a Christian, but as an Indian, and pray fervently for my country caught in the quagmire of change and decay;

‘From evil lead me to good

From darkness lead me to light

From death lead me to immortality’.