India and Pakistan have had a love-hate relationship since times immemorial. The regular jingoistic exchanges are often overpowered by the “aman ki aasha” . But perhaps no other experience will give you a better taste of the bittersweet relationship shared by the two countries than the famous Beating the Retreat ceremony held daily at the border crossing at Wagah. The Retreat ceremony is a daily military practice that security forces of India and Pakistan have jointly followed since 1959. The ceremony is marked with the security forces of both the countries participating in an elaborate and choreographed moves displaying aggression and rivalry. Attending this famous retreat ceremony at Wagah Border was on my wishlist for long and my dream finally came true when my family decided to visit the city of Amritsar this New Year.
The Wagah border crossing is more than 30 kilometers away from the Amritsar city centre. Couple that with Amritsar’s characteristic extraordinary traffic, it took us an hour and a half to reach the border. The drive to the border village of Attari was a surreal experience with the signposts indicating the distance to Lahore and Islamabad making me aware of the shared past of both the countries.
I will describe the scene at the border crossing in a single word : Chaos; although I did not expect over 10,000 excited Indians to queue up and be more orderly. Add to that the stringent security checks being carried out by the BSF personnel, and it was easily the most exhausting experience of my whole trip. Thankfully, my family had arranged VIP passes for us, and we got to the viewing gallery without much hassle. We rushed to get the best seats possible, where we could get a good view of the people across the line. The viewing galleries were packed and it looked like everyone was going to cross the frontier for war.
And amidst the blaring Bollywood music and the roaring, jingoistic crowd on either side of the border, I saw a Pakistani man wave towards me. I don’t know if he waved to me or not, but for the first time I felt that there really was a aman ki aasha. However, soon I got a rude awakening when some people sitting behind me started to chant ,” Hindustan Zindabad, Pakistan Murdabad” . The fact that these chanters were mere teenagers who had probably never seen or met a Pakistani, made me realise the extent to which suspicion and distrust for each other was rooted in our societies.
Soon the bugle sounded and infantrymen from both sides approached the border, and engaged in a choreographed routine of foot-stomping and mustache-twirling, amidst the deafening cheers of Bharat Mata ki Jai ! and Pakistan Zindabad ! from both sides of the border. Ironically, I saw a couple chanting patriotic slogans which had just an hour before asked their son to pee at the side of the road when he couldn’t find a washroom.
Although many people feel that the ceremony is a symbol of military dignity, I found nothing dignified in this routine; it looked just like a circus. Our brave soldiers looked just like circus performers, and the blustering crowd looked like the greedy audience, always wanting for more. After nearly half an hour of blustering theatrics, the bugle sounded again, this time indicating the lowering down of the flags. Infantrymen from both sides lowered down the flags in perfect synchronisation, shared a brusque handshake, and slammed the gates shut. And that was it; Many went close to the border, a set of fences that mark the difference between 2 different nations, in an otherwise identical geography, and others rushed for the exit to reach their vehicles first. Just as the crowd had entered, it left in mass exodus.
The journey from the border to my hotel proved to be the perfect backdrop for me to think over these events. Sure, this ceremony is a source of pride for many Indians and Pakistanis, but we as a community need to realise that this ceremony only adds fuel to the already raging fire of distrust and suspicion in our hearts. Instead of competing with each other in terms of our armies, we need to compete with each other in eradicating malnutrition and poverty. I hope with all my heart that someday India and Pakistan decide that friendship, and not enmity, is the way forward, for there is so much to be gained from that.
Note:- All the opinions stated in the above article are the author’s own.
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