Wagah – The tragicomedy of India-Pakistan

April 23, 2010

wagah2Most people who follow South Asia have either watched the Beating the Retreat ceremony at Wagah on the India-Pakistan border on video or been there in person. The farcical and choreographed display by goose-stepping soldiers from India and Pakistan as they slam shut the gates on the border crossing is such a  staple for Western journalists that it has almost become too cliched to write about.

But having been there myself for the first time last week, after 10 years of following India and Pakistan, I can’t resist throwing in my own two cents’ worth.

The mood is already riotously cheerful as we arrive from Lahore, “Jai Ho” blasting out from loudspeakers on the Indian side, soon to be drowned out by loud music on the Pakistani side, accompanied by much banging of drums, clapping, flag-waving and dancing. The goose-stepping soldiers with their turbans appear and dance out their quadrilles to cries of ”Pakistan Zindabad” on our side of the gate, “Bharat Mata ki” on the other. The white gates with the Pakistani flag and the name of the country in both English and Urdu are still shut, so that my first impression of a country that I once lived in for four years is that I can hear India rather than see it.

Then the gates open and for the briefest of moments you imagine what it would be like if the crowds on either side could simply walk up to each other, hug and talk; perhaps even pass each other on their way along the Grand Trunk Road as it once was before partition in 1947. The day that happens, if and when it does, you would have to be a very hard person not to shed a tear.  For me, at that moment, the fun of the ceremony was lost.

A spectacle that had initially seemed colourful and amusing became farce. Gone was the suspension of disbelief that allowed you to watch soldiers from two very professional armies perform in a way which would make even talent judge Simon Cowell blanche.

I’m not sure the mood in the crowd really changed. The women opposite us in the back row of the women-only benches continued to dance. The men kept yelling for Pakistan while the crowd on the other side chanted for India. It was impossible to tell whether they too had felt the same hollowness when the gates opened and were simply hiding it better.  Or maybe they were just enjoying a fun day out.  Tragicomedy is not unusual in South Asia, although the word is rather too decorous for the many thousands of deaths it has witnessed over the years.

The overly costumed soldiers in the ceremony faced off against each other while buglers sounded the retreat – traditionally played to signal the end of battle at sunset.  Slowly, with much reeling and flicking of ropes, the Indian and Pakistani flags were lowered. The gates were slammed shut.

Afterwards, we walked away from the border post to the barbed wire fence which divides the unbroken, unchanging countryside of the Punjab into India and Pakistan.  Not far behind us was a graveyard for some of those who had died in wars between India and Pakistan.  A white line in the dust underneath the fence marked the border. Unlike the ornamental crossing post with its gates and archways, here at this spot only this line and the fence separated us from the fields on the other side. I put one foot across the line, to stand in India.

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