Perhaps because I’m an army son that it rankles and I wince each time I see a civilian attempting a military salute. The sad but brutal truth is they don’t know how to do it, which is why the action looks silly. Equally importantly, they clearly don’t feel comfortable and the awkwardness shows.
Yet Indian politicians insist on saluting. They believe this is the patriotic thing to do and though that sentiment is genuine it doesn’t hide the spectacle they make of themselves which is why I end up laughing whenever I see one of them trying to do one.
Now let me tell you a few home truths about the military salute. It looks best when done by strapping soldiers. Height and build are part of what makes the salute look smart. Short, dumpy, pot-bellied men can end up looking comic. It also needs to be done with military precision.
Whether it’s the naval or army version, your fingers need to be together and stretched out straight, not splayed or awkwardly angled. That makes the difference between the swagger of a serving soldier and the shambolic decrepitude of Dad’s Army!
There are, however, a few other things that civilians don’t seem to know or appreciate. In the army an officer or soldier would never salute bare-headed. A cap or beret is an essential requirement. Without one an army man will instead bring himself to attention and pull his arms downwards.
Of course, the navy and air force have different traditions. Naval custom requires an exchange of salutes regard- less of headgear or dress. And, I’m reliably informed, since 2006 the air force salutes even while seated.
My point, however, is simple: Even with headgear civilians attempting to salute look uncomfortable and, actually, odd. Indeed, they can often look inelegant and occasionally comic. So, for heaven’s sake, why do our politicians do it?
It isn’t that there isn’t an acceptable and rather becoming alternative. The American tradition of placing your right hand over your heart, as you stand to attention when the national anthem is played, is the best.
It goes well with western suits and skirts just as it would with Indian bandgalas, kurta pyjamas, sarees and salwar- kameez.
Though not military the gesture does undeniably suggest heartfelt respect. That, after all, is what you intend when the national anthem is played or the flag unfurled. It’s also a tradition followed by some Indian organisations. If the pictures I’ve seen are accurate, I believe it’s customary for Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh members to hold their right hand across the chest with the fingers pointing left during the national anthem.
Shashi Tharoor attempted this when he first became an MP and encouraged those around to follow suit but, alas, ended up facing legal action for disrespecting the national anthem. Understandably, he’s never tried it again. But Shashi was correct and his critics wrong.
I’m confident our politicians would feel happier placing their right hand over their heart rather than attempting, in their creased kurta pyjamas or billowing sarees, a military salute they can’t do well and look decidedly ill-at ease performing.
It’s just that someone has to be the first. When that happens the practice could become acceptable very quickly. I guess we have to patiently wait for the first prime minister or president to strike out and be different. I wonder who it will be.