Why British hymn ‘Abide with Me’ was scrapped from key Indian ceremony

31 January 2022, 17:27 | Updated: 31 January 2022, 17:53

Abide with Me was written in 1847
Abide with Me was written in 1847. Picture: Getty

By Sophia Alexandra Hall

The traditional hymn has been replaced with the Indian patriotic song ‘Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon’.

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Indian politicians and musicians are clashing over the decision to drop ‘Abide with Me’ from the Indian Beating Retreat Ceremony.

As of 29 January 2022, the Indian patriotic song ‘Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon’, which translates from Hindi to English as ‘O’ people of my country’, has replaced the British Christian hymn.

Composed in Scotland in 1847 by Anglican Minister, Henry Francis Lyte, Abide with Me has been played at the Indian Beating Retreat ceremony since it began in 1950. The melody we most associate with the hymn was written by the English music editor, William Henry Monk 14 years later.

‘Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon’ was composed by Kavi Pradeep and C. Ramchandra in 1963 to commemorate Indian soldiers who died during the Sino-Indian War the year before.

Lyte wrote the ‘Abide with Me’ while he was dying of tuberculosis, and the lyrics are drawn from the Bible verse, Luke 24:29, “Abide with us: for it is toward evening, and the day is far spent.” The last but one verse comes from the Bible again, but this time 1 Corinthians 15:55, which says, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory?”.

The hymn went on to have great success after the minister’s death two months later and became a favourite of both King George V and King George VI. Due to India’s colonial past, the song also became a fixture in the country’s own ceremonial repertoire.

Read more: ‘Abide with Me’: what are the lyrics and story behind the British hymn?

Marching band perform at Beating Retreat ceremony in India

Why has ‘Abide with Me’ been dropped?

This isn’t the first time that the hymn has been dropped from the Indian Beating Retreat ceremony. In 2020, it was missing from the programme for the ceremony, but due to the backlash it was put back into the line-up last minute.

Last year, ‘Abide with Me’ was the only non-Indian tune played during the Beating the Retreat.

Government officials have told various media outlets that the change for 2022 to ‘Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon’ was part of an “ongoing process of decolonising India”.

It has been widely reported that the hymn was a favourite of social activist, Mahatma Gandhi, and his grandson has said in support of the hymn “The words are universal, the tune human”.

Writing in the Hindustan Times, Gopalkrishna Gandhi said, “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.”

Bands of all the three Defence Services perform at the closing of the Republic Day Celebration
Bands of all the three Defence Services perform at the closing of the Republic Day Celebration. Picture: Alamy

What have the reactions been?

Based on the reactions across social media and broadcast platforms, there are some who disagree with ‘Abide with Me’ being removed from the Indian Beating Retreat ceremony.

India’s military traditions are intrinsically linked to the country’s colonial history. Some argue this means that music with colonial roots such as ‘Abide with Me’ should be replaced, while others suggest the tune is too important to the country’s history to remove from play.

The song ‘Ae Mere Watan Ke Logon’ commemorates Indian soldiers who died during the Sino-Indian War in 1962 and is considered to be one of the country’s most popular patriotic songs.

Congress’ Priyanka Chaturvedi asked whether in order to “rewrite a new India”, was it “important to let go of precious traditions?”.

Another member of parliament, Palaniappan Chidambaram, followed the above post by tweeting, “It pains me and millions of citizens that in the 72nd year of the Republic the hymn will be dropped.”

Meanwhile, politician and current housing, urban affairs and irrigation minister of Assam, Ashok Singhal, argued that the removal of the Christian hymn was a historic day for India.

Some musicians took to Twitter and other social media sites in protest, and performed their own renditions of ‘Abide with Me’ or wrote out lyrics from the hymn.