For the first time since 1952, Abide With Me will not be played by the Military Bands of India during the Beating the Retreat ceremony at Vijay Chowk, scheduled to be held on 29 January 2022. 

Since 2020 efforts were being made by the Centre to replace Abide With Me with another tune more ‘familiar to us’. The explanation given is that it is a Christian Hymn and is a relic of our Colonial Past. The opposition, obviously, has not taken it well and have opposed the move but they too don’t seem to be very convincing in their argument beyond stating that it was the ‘favourite hymn’ of Mahatma Gandhi. 

It is now a topic of debate in social media. Having heard some weird explanations by both sides including one that says that Abide with Me is a ‘Catholic funeral hymn’ and another (by a noted historian) who calls it Abide By Me, it is easy to conclude that these commentators or so-called historians have neither bothered to assimilate the meaning of this hymn in its entirety nor are they informed about the Background or history behind this hymn. 

Better put, neither do they have the attribute nor the gumption to understand the significance of this hymn. It is my endeavour, therefore, to bring to fore a historical perspective of this hymn and then, amidst the raging controversy, suggest whether this hymn should continue to be played as part of Beating the Retreat in a ceremony attended by none less than the Supreme Commander of our armed forces, the President of India, as the Chief Guest, the Prime Minister and Union Ministers and military and civil dignitaries at Vijay Chowk as an extension of our Republic Day Celebrations. 

The biblical link to this hymn is found in Luke Chapter 24, Verse 29 in which the disciples asked Jesus to abide with them – “Stay with us, the day is almost over and it is getting dark”. This signifies that it is a hymn that ushers the eventide in a spirit of warm brotherhood and bonhomie. 

The author of this hymn, Henry Francis Lyte, an Anglican minister, suffered most of his life from poor health and when he felt his own end approaching 27 years after he had authored this hymn, he himself recalled the words that he had written.

Opportunists have exploited this fact to call it a ‘Funeral Hymn’! Now, let us understand the lyrics which makes it a beautiful eventide hymn:-

Abide with me, fast falls the eventide

The darkness deepens Lord, with me abide

When other helpers fail and comforts flee

Help of the helpless, oh, abide with me

Swift to its close ebbs out life’s little day

Earth’s joys grow dim, its glories pass away

Change and decay in all around I see

O Thou who changest not, abide with me

I fear no foe, with Thee at hand to bless

Ills have no weight, and tears no bitterness

Where is death’s sting?

Where, grave, thy victory?

I triumph still, if Thou abide with me

Hold Thou Thy cross before my closing eyes

Shine through the gloom and point me to the skies

Heaven’s morning breaks, and earth’s vain shadows flee

In life, in death, o Lord, abide with me

Abide with me, abide with me

As I repeatedly pour over these lyrics, I am at a loss to see the ‘Colonial Past’ connect and I fail to relate it to a ‘Funeral Hymn’ or one that beckons death. Much rather, it proscribes death by giving hope to yet another days battle. Common sense tells me that it is a hymn which, at the end of a hard days battle assures victory to follow – “ I triumph still if Thou abide with me.” How reassuring it is for a soldier, that in the midst of a raging battle, there is hope even after suffering reverses to ultimately reign victorious. “You win some you lose some but you always live to fight another day with the blessings of the Almighty” is a simple soldier’s interpretation of the lyrics. 

Beating the Retreat signifies a military tradition dating back centuries where troops stopped fighting, sheathed their arms, withdrew from the battlefield and returned to their camps at the sounding of the retreat. Modern-day warfighting obviously has a different connotation but the bottom line remains that it brings to end the events of the day. The last note of Abide With Me cascades into rolling of drums which finally culminates with the buglers sounding the ‘Last Post’. 

The Father of our Nation liked the hymn because he had the intellect to understand the meaning and significance of the hymn without attributing it to religion or politics. Today, unfortunately, it is religion and politics that is behind the dropping of this hymn. Every other explanation including linkages with the Colonial Past etc is but a lame excuse. 

I am a Christian by birth. My mighty and wonderful army has taught me to respect all religions and to adopt the religion of my troops as my own. I did that with great reverence. This was passed down to me by my father, also an army officer, and I proudly passed it on to my sons who are both officers in the army. This move of dropping the hymn from the Beating Retreat Ceremony is damaging not because I am a Christian but because I am an army officer. Where else but in the Indian Army do you find officers and men of a unit attending the church, the mandir, the masjid and the gurudwara all within the precincts of a ‘Sarv Dharm Sthal’ without any qualms whatsoever? Where else have you heard of a unit Panditji or Granthi standing in for a Maulvi while the latter is away on leave? If this be the prevalent secular credentials of the officers and men then where is the need to rock the boat with frivolous and unwarranted explanations? Why is it that after 37 years of service in the army and 7 years into retirement, I am forced to think that there are deliberate efforts being made to polarize the treasure trove of our nation–the Indian Armed Forces? Dropping the hymn does not in any way indicate ‘yet another step to decolonise’. Rather it looks like a sinister attempt of divisive forces to harm the ethos, traditions and social fabric of our nation.

Now, for my personal view. A hymn as beautiful as Abide With Me which has so wrongly been interpreted and incorrectly propogated must not be allowed to be exploited and trivialised any further. It is therefore better to drop it from the Beating the Retreat schedule so that the very sanctity of the hymn is unscathed or subjected to further desecration, propaganda and cheap exploitation.

In conclusion, if the powers that be have decided to drop the hymn Abide With Me from the Beating the Retreat schedule, so be it. . Aye Mere Watan Ke Logon is a wonderful patriotic song. There is no need to give explanations for all decisions taken, especially in the military ceremonial sphere It is naïve on the part of the opposition to the state that Abide With Me was a favourite hymn of the Father of the Nation and therefore should not be dropped. In fact, had Bapu ji been alive, in keeping with trends of an evolving nation even he may have suggested a change for reasons other than colonial, political or religious. Abide With Me is a tune that is played by military bands all across the world with great reverence and respect as an essential part of Beating the Retreat and is definitely not a symbol or relic of Colonial Past.

Whilst on the topic of Colonial Past let us not forget that the Indian Armed Forces have imbibed some wonderful traditions from the British which have held us in good stead and has weathered numerous political and religious storms. At the same time we have evolved and maintained our sacred stance as a secular and apolitical National Armed Force. Let us strive to make this ‘Last Bastion’ stronger with every passing day. As we evolve, may the winds of change also drive our political masters to foster brotherhood and bonhomie amongst the people of our great nation which, incidentally, is the very start point and theme of this article.


Major General (retd) Binoy Poonen, AVSM, VSM, was commissioned into the 13th Battalion of the Mahar Regiment in 1978, and served the Indian Army for 37 years. He also served as the GOC of the 57 Mountain Division