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India - Pakistan: Wagah-Attari border cermony a macho, comic farce egged on by thousands of cheering, jingoistic supporters

15 January 2015

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Daily News and Analysis -14 January 2015

At Wagah, a solemn ceremony is reduced to patriotism fest

by Minu Jain

A retreat ceremony, by very definition, should be about pomp and splendour perhaps, but also restraint and dignity. Not so the one between India and Pakistan though with the evening ritual at the Wagah-Attari border reduced to a macho, comic farce being egged on by thousands of cheering, jingoistic supporters on both sides.

Think of the sun setting, the bugle being sounded and flags lowering gently at the border checkpost, dividing not just Punjab, but also two peoples who were one until not so long ago. Now think of drumbeats with a loud baritone shouting “Vande Mataram” over the mike and thousands of manic supporters screaming an echo in response while troopers, in full regal splendour, rush to the giant gates and flex their muscles — literally.

It’s a yawning gap between what a retreat ceremony should be and what it actually is. It should be about solemnity and poignancy, a lump-in-your-throat ceremony recalling the restive history of two neighbours who have fought three wars and continue to wage skirmishes over issues big and small. Instead, the daily ritual at the only border crossing — Wagah on the Pakistan side and Attari on the India side – has become somewhat of a tamasha.

So, what we have is an over-the-top ceremony with troopers reduced to caricatures. They come rushing towards the gates and halt in front of them, adjust their turbans, thump their chests and flex their muscles — pretty much like Popeye. The goose steps — a chilling throwback to the Nazi era — are way more exaggerated than they should be, a seemingly impossible anatomical feat with the leg almost touching the forehead.

Ironically, this is all done in perfect synchronisation with the Pakistanis on the other side of the iron gates. As Mahatma Gandhi looks on from one side and Muhammad Ali Jinnah from the other Pakistani men in ceremonial black, match muscle flex with muscle flex with their red turbaned-khaki uniformed Indian counterparts. Each Hindustan Zindabad is met with a robust Jeeve Jeeve Pakistan as the spectators cheer on the spectacle.
It’s an India-Pakistan show orchestrated for the front benchers, complete with wolf whistles.

The patriotism fest begins on the road leading up to the border with stalls selling T-shirts, flags and young boys who seek to deftly paint a tricolour on your face. The enthusiasm is almost infectious but soon, as with any show of excessive patriotism, the unease sets in. Because the drummed up patriotism (literally) gets the pulse racing and a certain mob mentality sets in, bringing with it jeers for the other, not just cheers for your country.

And that can only be unhealthy. In October 2010, the chiefs of India’s Border Security Force (BSF) and the Pakistan Rangers met and decided to end the “angry eyeball to eyeball exchange, thumping of boots and other aggressive gestures from the flag lowering parade”. Four years on, that has clearly not happened.

It’s all about playing to the gallery. As one BSF officer put it, there has to be something to show the thousands of people who make the trip to Attari from Amritsar. On this bitterly cold Christmas, there were about 8,000 people on the Indian side, a number that can swell to twice that in October.

The fact that Pakistan is literally within touching distance, that Lahore is just a short drive away makes it an emotional moment, introspective even. But all that is thrown to the winds by a circus that recalls a Rajinikanth film with inexpert and exaggerated moves. A ridiculous game of one-upmanship by India and Pakistan replacing a ceremony that started as a gesture of goodwill.

The author is consulting editor, dna


The above article from Daily News and Analysis is reproduced here for educational and non commercial use