The complex love-hate relationship between India and Pakistan has remained an enigma to those not familiar with the history of the Indian subcontinent. Two major wars have been fought between the countries and came dangerously close to a full blown war on two other occasions.
Therefore, it is indeed amusing, entertaining and downright patriotic to see Border Guards of both sides go eye-ball-to-eyeball in a synchronized and demonstratively aggressive ceremony, also known as ‘Beating the Retreat’, every evening at sundown, at the Wagah Border in Punjab that divides the two countries.
Barring a few years, every evening since 1959, Border Guards shut the gates on both sides of the border, which is synchronized with lowering each nation’s flag respectively, at sundown. What started off as a regular ceremony on both sides, has now grown into a tourist spectacle for people on both sides of the border. But beyond the aggressive posturing that is loved by people of both countries, lies an underlying feeling of love and brotherhood, despite the divide that marks the colonial legacy of the British.
History has recorded the bitter and brutal violence that saw the massacre of civilians on both sides at the time of partition in 1947, and the state that took the maximum brunt was Punjab, which was divided as a consequence of that partition.
Wagah remained the only crossing point between the two countries for several years before the Aman Setu opened up in J&K and Wagah has remained a point of visitor curiosity for people of both countries. While Amritsar is the main city close to the border on the Indian side, Lahore in Pakistan, is the closest on that side.
So despite a bloody history, what draws people to the border every evening? To understand that one has to understand every aspect and nuance of the highly choreographed ceremony and why it is perhaps the most attractive for tourists from all over the world.
Beating the Retreat Ceremony at Wagah – view from the Indian side
Border Security Force (BSF)
Indian borders are guarded by the highly trained BSF and they are entrusted with the lowering of the flag and closing of the gates ceremony every sundown.
BSF guards are specially chosen based on their look and physical appearance. Almost all are well-built and over six feet tall, and put through rigorous training on the ceremonial process that is timed to perfection. Almost all guards sport a moustache that enhances their macho appeal and aggressive stance that they put out during the ceremony.
The evening is as much about pomp and pageantry as it is about aggressive expression. The BSF stands out for their ‘ceremonial Khaki’ dress that is highlighted by their very colourful headgear with a ‘large fanfold plume’ of red and yellow which matches their well tucked in and neat ‘scarf’. Each wears their well-earned ‘medals’ along with their colourful ‘lanyard’ strapping their left shoulder. They also wear a matching colour broad waist belt over which they wear their regular black leather belt.
People reach Wagah by road, a forty-minute drive from Amritsar, and then based on whether you are a special invitee or general public, take up seats on the specially built grandstands on both sides of the only road going over to the Pakistani side, right next to the border gate. VIPs of course get the best seats closest to the gates, while others are seated just behind.
The music and festive atmosphere
The mood? It’s almost a festival but with the excitement, anticipation and nervousness that matches the pre-match mood of the most competitive soccer game between two of the biggest rivals in any major soccer league final!
Ladies are in their colourful best, children are hyper with excitement, while the men are more somber but equally excited in anticipation of what will unfold as the ceremony begins. Vendors remain busy mingling with the crowd, trying to sell flags, souvenirs and eatables.
Patriotic music is played out through loud speakers, and India of course, has the best collection of patriotic songs and people love it! The music is interspersed with patriotic sloganeering, led by a civilian Master of Ceremonies (MC), with calls of ‘Hindustan Zindabad’, in an attempt to out voice the Pakistani side, where it’s pretty much the same fervour and excitement.
On the MC’s call, people are involved in a ‘flag run’ where few selected persons hold the Indian flag for a brief run around the grandstand and people clap and cheer the same, along with the vociferous ‘Hindustan Zindabad’ call. By now, the patriotic sentiment begins to reach frenzied levels.
The BSF ceremonial commander marches out with his ‘team’ of five and takes up a pre-ceremony inspection of each soldier. With clockwork precision on both sides, the leader takes the mike and gives out a long and boisterous battle cry. This is followed with him marching in a vigorous and stomping march, along with his team, towards the border gate and the ceremony begins with a series of well-coordinated foot stomping moves and menacing gestures towards the Pakistani side with looks to match, that resembles something straight out of a martial art sequence.
At this point, people go into patriotic rapture, cheering and clapping for the soldiers, as they take turns in completing their sequence of routine. In the end, at the sound of the bugle on both sides, the gates are closed in unison and the respective flags lowered.
Is the ceremony patriotic, jingoistic or plain entertainment?
As people begin to leave the venue, the mood is a bit of it all but with an underlying sense of Déjà Vu. While people love the patriotic fervor, at the same time, there is an unstated desire to reach out to people on the other side, just as it once was.
If the ceremony is a reminder of what the reality is, it also highlights what should never have been there in the first place. If the Berlin wall could fall, then perhaps one day…
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