Recently, on the way back from an official trip for academic purposes, the colleagues and me made a stop-over at Amritsar for a day. We visited the 'Golden Temple' and the 'Jallianwalla Bagh' as is almost mandatory for any visitor to Amritsar. However, I was anticipating our visit to a place called the ‘Wagah border’ which is known to be the point of entry into India from Pakistan and vice versa.
We actually didn’t plan to stroll in to Pakistan territory, but were repeatedly advised to visit the ‘Wagah border’ by people who had been there before. The reason for the interest in that place seemed to emerge due to a daily exhibition of a ‘Beating retreat’ ceremony that marks the lowering of flags of the two countries by their security forces on each side of the border.
After making utter gluttons of ourselves over the famous ‘Amritsari thalis’ and ‘Kulchas’, we set of for the border in the heat of the afternoon with a jolly old Sardarji as our guide cum driver.
But as soon as we were dropped off about one kilometer from the actual site of the event, I could sense a strange feeling one experiences on arriving at a cricket match. There were people with boxes of colors in one hand and brushes in the other literally chasing and harassing the visitors to get the national flag painted on their face. Others were harassing the visitors into buying snacks and bottles of water. The scene appeared no less than a picnic spot. We somehow managed to escape those harassers.
After half an hour worth’s walk in the sun (which was a welcome option after all the over-eating) and surviving long queues on at least three security check points, we finally reached the site of action. The venue consisted of public stands made on either side of the Grand Trunk road on each side of the border with a couple of gates separating the two sides in the middle of the road.
We soon realized the futility of reaching the stand comparatively early as all the over-excited spectators decided to view the proceedings (even if nothing had begun yet) while standing. We decided it better to move to the edge of the stand to be able to catch glimpses by trying to stand on our toes.
Instantly, a tall man in a white sports suit emerged with a mic in his hand and greeted all the spectators (on the Indian side, obviously). He then gave a brief introduction about the ceremony and notified everyone about the slogans that would be shouted.
It was then that we noticed rows of chairs on each side of the road in front of the stands. And then we realized that they were meant for VIP and VVIP visitors who wanted to have a ringside view of the proceedings. We were still discussing whether those seats were paid or not when suddenly movie songs suggestive of patriotism started playing on the loudspeakers all around.
On seeing the crowd in the stands bursting into a resounding cheer, I stood on my toes to see what it was all about. And there, in the middle of the road were large groups of females of various ages having the time of their lives dancing on the beats of the songs.
It looked rather like a typical ‘baraat’, the only addition being a few Indian flags being waved by some of the enthusiastic dancers. How the entire crowd comprehended it as something highly patriotic was beyond me.
Soon, I could make out something very similar going on across the other side of the border. The dancing, waving and shouting continued for almost half an hour during which I had several bouts of reasoning whether or not it was a mistake to visit this place.
Thankfully, this extravagant display of patriotism ended and we saw a few of the troops marching out for what appeared to be the serious part of the ceremony. But we soon realized that it was just the formal part of the competition; a competition which the two countries indulge in every day.
A competition about –
Whose troops are taller and smarter…
Whose commanding personnel can shout louder and longer…
Whose soldiers are more aggressive in the routine…
The crowd on which side can over-shout the other…
And ultimately, who displays more patriotism than the other.
While the dedication of the security forces is unparalleled, it was really disheartening to see the results of the ceremony which the crowds on either side of the border took away with them. A sense of patriotism in any form is always welcome but what each country can do without, especially at this point of time, is the sense of aversion, hostility and distrust.
The mutual lowering of the national flags should signify mutual trust and confidence between the two sides. The flags are indeed lowered. But only after the crowd on each side is assured that they are better than the other and the other side cannot be trusted.
It is ironic that on each side of the border, on the monumental gateways bearing the names and flags of India and Pakistan, there appear the pictures of the fathers of both the nations. It seems as if people on both the sides are ready to take on each other on behalf of their ‘father of the nation’.
But I’m sure that both M.K. Gandhi and M.A. Jinnah wouldn’t have expected being forced to face off each other so many years after independence.