Sound and fury at WAGAH

The change of guard at the Wagah check post is a spectacle that crowds throng to watch. Geetanjali Gayatri on showtime at this border village where fun is the mood and aggression the message as the parade begins

Men who can march with elan are selected for Beating the Retreat ceremony.
Men who can march with elan are selected for Beating the Retreat ceremony. ó Photos by Rajiv Sharma

Thereís a biting chill in the air as evening sets in at the Wagah border. The setting sun nestles among the clouds in the horizon lending a rose-tinted hue to the sky. Itís time for the flag-lowering border-closing parade between India and Pakistan, a time when hysteria reigns and patriotism spills over across boundaries.

Come to be known as the "ritual of hate", Beating the Retreat ceremony has many a taker, evident in the sheer numbers that fill up the stands every day. Evenings at Wagah are a "happening" affair as people by the bus-loads throng the venue well before the ritualís slated hour and fill up empty stands.

On either side of the border, these stands seem melting pots in their own right where people from all walks, all age-groups, all sects and races stand up as one to cheer their country and jeer at the opponent in an attempt to outdo each other.

On the face of it, itís one big party happening in the stands as the crowd, armed with picnic baskets, awaits the arrival of the men in brown who march and stomp before banging the gates in the face of the Ďfractiousí men in black. If tricolours dot every row in the Indian stand, the Pakistanis "green" waves arrogantly from theirs; every shout of "Hindustan Zindabad" is promptly met by "Pakistan Jiye" in the same tone and tenor while patriotic songs, playing on tape recorders, whip up some extra frenzy as charged crowds sing paeans for their homelands.

Crowds love to watch the aggressive drill
Crowds love to watch the aggressive drill

Against this backdrop, the men from the Border Security Force, and their counterparts across the border, the Pakistan Rangers, take their positions, opening the gates to announce the beginning of the ceremony. Immaculately dressed, the BSF personnel in their brown uniforms and red turbans that fan off like a crown at the top, come face to face with the Rangers, attired in a black salwaar-kameez. As the sun goes down, the crass shouts from the crowd reach a new high. After a simultaneous word of command of the Guard commanders of the BSF and the Pak Rangers, the bugle is sounded, the "match" is on. Thus begins the spectacle of strength at this border check post on the Indo-Pak border between Amritsar and Lahore.

Tall, smart jawans with swift movements "prance around the place" stomping hard, shouting commands harder. Chests puffed out, swelled with the pride for their country, they seem daggers drawn as they exchange a brief handshake before lowering the flags of their respective countries.

The border transforms into an arena where men from the forces are reduced to mere gladiators, fighting in a no-win situation amidst cheering crowds. The ritual is also comparable to any India-Pakistan match which elicits a similar response when the two teams are in the field. The crowd is merely concerned about being one up on the other in sound and word while all else is inconsequential.

At this ceremony, the soldiers, as per orders, give expression to the current status of relations between the two countries. Strained relations come heavily loaded with aggressive drills. The more bitter the relations, the higher they lift their legs, upto chest-level sometimes, to show the soles of their shoes to the opponent and the harder they hit the ground. Until recently, the soldiers exchanged belligerent gestures including staring at each other and marching aggressively.

Now, India, on its part, has decided to dwell more on what is being touted as another of its "confidence-building measures" to improve relations with her neighbours by scaling down the shoe-thumping drama at the border.

This is in consonance with a decision to this effect taken way back in 2004, during a four-day meeting between the officers of the two forces. Maintaining that the drill was "too rough" in the light of improved relations between the two countries, the BSF has fallen back to the conventional style marked by slower movements and absence of stomping.

So, while Pakistan continues to kick up some dust before hitting the ground with a thud, the BSF personnel march with greater poise and less of sound at this ceremony unique to Wagah.

As the flags come down, men from either side grab theirs in a split second, fold it and march down from the post to the Quarter Guard in an impressive parade as chants of Bharat ki jai fill the air. The gates then slide in for closure with a loud clang on the Pakistan side, reciprocated with a "more controlled bang" from the Indian side as cheering reaches a feverish pitch, drowning the sound of the twittering birds returning home after a long day. At the Quarter Guard, the flag rests through the night, awaiting the dawn of a new day.

The crowd, still high on nationalism, sits around in the green spaces provided at Wagah border "enjoying a cup of tea over some snacks," people take time and turns to have themselves clicked in front of the closed gates or hop over to the zero line as songs about nationalism from Hindi films return to resound in the post. With the entire "show" captured on camera and in this age of information technology, CDs of the same are easily available outside the Swaran Jayanti gate which leads to the venue.

Strange as it may seem, and notwithstanding all the hostility at any given time, the entire exercise at the border is a coordinated effort between the BSF and the Pak Rangers. "We have a monthly meeting together and share cordial relations as far as the meetings and flag-lowering exercise is concerned. The relations between the two countries do not cast a shadow on our talks which are held in amicable surroundings," remarks an officer.

In the Beating the Retreat ceremony, tall men who can march with `E9lan are selected for the parade. "All our soldiers receive training at our various centres. However, jawans with a smart parade are handpicked for the ceremony which is watched not only by Indian and Pakistanis on either side of the border but by tourists from foreign countries as well who are in complete awe of this one-of-its-kind ceremony in the world," he maintains.

A crowd of 5,000 plus is present to cheer for India on week days while the numbers cross the 8,000 mark on weekends and holidays. Some cultural troupes also perform on special occasions. It is this tourist attraction that has kept the ceremony going, replete with all its "provocative gestures" now done away by the Indian side.

Even though Pakistan continues to be adamant on sticking to its present aggressive drill, the BSF is hopeful "our neighbour will realise the futility of the hostility at the border when there is no reason for tension between the nations".

"There has been no scaling down of the drill as is being made out by the media. There is no lack of enthusiasm in the crowd, no lack of alacrity on the part of the BSF men. I think it is a very good parade, more so because it is done together by the two countries. People from India and Pakistan witness it together which is our way of bringing the two together," the BSF IG, Arvind Ranjan, said.

Refusing to comment on the toning down of the drill and Pakistanís response to it, he said that he would reserve all his comments about the ceremony for the Flag meetings or meetings held at the level of the Commandants or ADIGs.

Visitors at Wagah, however, feel that the drill should not be linked to relations between the countries in any way. "People coming to Amritsar drive down to Wagah only to witness this ceremony. It is the mood and the passion of the drill that holds the maximum attraction for any commoner. If the forces decide to tone it down, the charm of Beating the Retreat is lost. All the vigour and enthusiasm in the crowd comes from the shouts of the BSF personnel, the loud thumping of their shoes on the ground. I donít think there is reason to reduce it to just any ordinary drill," remarks C. Shivaraman, who came to watch the ceremony after reading reports about its toning down in the newspapers.

A group of college students from Bathinda, too, were of the opinion that the drill must go on irrespective of the relations the two countries share. "Pakistan is a subject of great interest for any Indian. So, while we canít go down to the other side, watching the Pakistanis charged up and raring to go just like us shows we share similarity in all respects," says Lakhwinder Singh, the eldest in the group.

So, while the governments in both countries chalk out the course of diplomatic ties between India and Pakistan, the Wagah drill continues to attract people from both sides in large numbers. For now, the only change visible at the border is that the Indians are not kicking as high as their Pakistani counterparts and not resorting to any of the provocative gestures to outdo the Pakistanis or twirling the moustache is express superiority over them. The dust is only beginning to settle on the Indian side. Pakistan will surely respond to this new style of Gandhigiri at the border outpost. The saga of Wagah, however, continues.

Saga of Wagah

Wagah is a small village situated on the road linking Lahore (Pakistan) and Amritsar (India), 28 km from Amritsar. It falls in the jurisdiction of Lahore, about 1 km from the international boundary. Historically, this village was a part of the jagir of jagirdar Sham Singh of Attari, an important General of Maharaja Ranjit Singh.

After Partition in August 1947, the joint check post at Wagah was established near the mail boundary pillar number 102 on the National Highway No. I, also known as the Sher Shah Suri Marg and the Grand Trunk Road. Before Partition, both Amritsar and Lahore were the trade centres of the then undivided Punjab. The (JCP) joint check post, equidistant from Amritsar and Lahore, continued to provide immigration and custom facilities.

JCP Wagah is the only authorised land route between India and Pakistan. At the time of the establishment of the JCP, the Indian Army was entrusted with the task of ensuring security at the check post. Initially, the Kumaon Regiment of the Army provided the first contingent to man the JCP and the first flag-hoisting ceremony was witnessed by Brig Mohinder Singh Chopra on October 11, 1947. Narinder Singh and Choudhary Ram Singh, the then Deputy Commissioner and the Superintendent of Police, Amritsar, were also associated in the establishment of the JCP at Wagah.

However, during the mid-1950s, the JCP was taken over by the Punjab Police which deployed a platoon of Punjab Armed Police to provide security and facilitate the smooth movement of authorised persons between the two countries.

The BSF took control of the JCP after its inception on December 1, 1965. Ever since the establishment of the JCP at Wagah, the Retreat Ceremony is held daily. This ceremony was discontinued during hostilities between India and Pakistan in 1965 and 1971. ó G.G.