A short drive away from Amritsar runs the India-Pakistan border. The border drawn to create the two modern nations of India and Pakistan cuts through Punjab, the land of five rivers. There have been many stories about how the international lines ran through fields, villages and even houses. The stretch is now demarcated by barbwire fencing that is said to run the whole length. Wagah is a village on the Pakistan side of the border. The checkpoint here is said to go back to the British times (at least). The British went back but the check-post remained and is now manned by the Indian forces on this side of the border and the Pakistani forces on the other side. For some time now, the retreat has become a popular tourist destination. Everyday, come rains or sunshine, it takes place without fail. A local journalist friend tells us that the per day footfall at this venue is approximately a lakh at a minimum.
We drove down the green stretches of wheat and managed to reach the venue just as the retreat was starting. And what a spectacle it was! The Border Security Force (BSF) in splendid ceremonial attire of dull khaki with striking red patterns and the men with a splendid red headgear flaring in the evening sun. Because Pakistan and the border gate is in the west, the direction of the setting sun, this meant that the standing red cloth atop the turban was highlighted against the light in many of the photographs. How does that strike to you?
They reminded me of the beautiful proud male cocks we used to have in the chicken coop. Always ready to raise their head high and stand over the others. Always ready to announce morning before sunrise. Ironically, the female of the BSF like the female chick displays a less splendid uniform – at least in this ritual. Cannot comment on the BSF but the hens remind me of the remark I once read that in effect says that in nature it is the men who are usually more colourfully attired while among humans it is the opposite. Well, not so opposite to nature here!
From a photography perspective, the light is such that the neatly pleated red head gear of the uniform is highlighted while the faces of the soldiers are obscured to the point of being anonymous. For those looking for better lighting to photograph the event, the view from across the border should be much better considering the lighting. To me, it curiously struck me as reflecting the notion of altruism that is the main plank in most representations of the armed forces. The lighting seemed to obliterate the individual personnels while highlighting the uniform in the event.
Spectacle, as Don Handelman repeats, emphasises sight and sound. What I found remarkable about my experience of the retreat at Wagah was how sight and sound with the use of symbols induces the milieu to a state of effervescence – an effervescence of patriotic zeal. The music, the shouts, the responding cries, the enthusiasm, the thunderous clappings, the whistles, the upraised fisted hands, the overstated military body language – in fact, I had originally titled this post ‘Military Machismo at Wagah’. The retreat as a ceremony is not particularly special in the sense that the ceremonial taking down of the flag takes place at most post along the international borders. What makes Wagah’s event special is the passionate display on both sides of the border. Yes, the two nations have more in common. For instance, the non verbal body language of aggression that the performers on both sides perfectly understand and the love for drama as seen everyday at 5 pm I.S.T.
The drums for the march was a drum-set and it was played by a lady of the BSF. The music of the march was not the usual marching beat but one that had more zing – for a lack of words to describe music. It was energetic and faster and infectiously made you to sit up instead sit down. The announcer of the event was dressed in white and stood along the pavement where the retreat was happening. He was the one addressing the attendees – announcing, interacting and calling out slogans as chants to be repeated by the enthusiastic crowd. In short, he was building the momentum of the crowd along with the drummer.
The beat to the march was nothing like I have ever heard. Though I must say that my exposure to marches are rather limited to my school activities where it seemed to consume a lot of interest for whatever reasons. Besides school, it was the republic day parades. In both cases, it was uniformity that is emphasised – match your pace with the others, last line on the right do not turn to salute, other lines look at the rightmost person to maintain line, do not swing your hands above your shoulders, too short or too tall then you cannot be in the same format. Oh yes! in Little Flower School (LFS Imphal), we used to have inter-house marching competitions. Now that I think of it, it probably teaches discipline but i wonder if an over-emphasis on uniformity does not crush individuality in the name of discipline.
Anyways, indoctrinated into the sort of Marching order, the un-uniform march of the personnel was not quite impressive. I kept thinking, as did my father, if only…… if only their hands swung in rhythm, if only they raised it to the same height, if only the arms was similarly aligned, if only they stamped their feet together, and so on. But then, it is not the uniformity but the exaggeration fueled by passion that makes Wagah’s retreat worth a visit!
Along the gates adjoining the no-man’s land, the retreat takes place with full drama on both sides of the boundary surrounded by symbols of the corresponding nations. On the Indian side, the portrait of Gandhi smiles down from a gateway marking the golden anniversary of the Nation while the gate marking off no-man’s land is decorated with the emblem of Lion Capital. The focus of the retreat, the Tricolour (tiranga,) flies next to the gate but the focus for the many visitors is the spectacle of nationalism mixed with melodrama of aggression and passion. The peculiar marriage of the two can again be heard in the patriotic Bollywood song that is being played – jahaan dal dal par sone ke chiriya kare basera, woh Bharat desh hai mera – a song picturised on Puru, the king of Sindh, as he gathers his warriors to go into war against the Greek invasion led by Alexander (from the movie Sikandar-e-azaam, 1965). It can also be seen in the posters around the venue.
Cricket has for long engaged the nation – in fact both nations. The passion at Wagah is another expression of the fervour that grips an India-Pakistan cricket match (and it never seems to matter whether that match is a final or the first of the tournament). ‘We bat for India’ says one of the posters showing a picture of Virat Kohli along with a photograph of an unnamed soldier in uniform with dark glasses – both pictures show the glamour of the two professions. another picture across the road with the same message shows the ‘action’ of the two lines – Virat as he bats and a BSF personnel whose gun is aimed at the viewer.
And that brings me to something much nearer home, what happens when that gun is actually aimed at me when I am at my home in Manipur? what happens when the force of the military/para-military is directed towards its own citizens? Does not the Armed Forces Special Protection Act (AFSPA) allow such a situation by emphasising the armed forces at the expense of some of its citizens? Whatever exhilaration there was to the spectacle, it was like throwing my head into a bucket of ice water.