At the Wagah Border

Phrangsngi Pyrtuh makes a long journey from Shillong to Wagah on India Pakistan Border

My last days of 2016 were spent traveling to Punjab and paying a visit to Chandigarh and Amritsar. On the itinerary was a plan trip to Wagah border, which is situated at the Attari integrated check post. Like other border check point, dotting the boundary of India the Attari border check post is manned by the Border Security Force (BSF). Unique to Wagah though, a traditional “lowering flag” ceremony occurring at 4.15 in the evening attracts tourist and visitors from both side of the border. Soldiers belonging to BSF from the Indian side and Sutlej Rangers from the Pakistani side adorned with colorful uniforms and turbans performed a ritualistic drill, which have been described as colorful and aggressive.

Former External ministers Yashwant Singha described it as ‘ugly’ and ‘vulgar’. No matter the name calling and romantic remarks, no other check point along India’s international border conducts an exercise similar to Wagah. Being situated next to Pakistan has only enhanced its image and brand. The BSF has even constructed a stadium to accommodate curious visitors and tourists which is always almost packed to capacity. To get a ring side view one needs to reach the place an hour or two early. In the weekends and holidays such as during New Year, getting a place to sit or stand can be tough as I realized soon enough.

Wagah is a must visit place as one travels to Amritsar to see the Golden Temple, which itself attracts thousands of visitors daily. These two sites were immediately impressed upon visitors and tourist the moment they entered Amritsar city. Offers to ferry passengers from taxi drivers, auto drivers to these two places flooded the railway station, roadside markets etc. Wagah is a roughly 40 minutes drive from the city. I along with my friends decided to travel to Wagah on the 1st of January 2017 which falls on Sunday. We were told that most weekends are crowded with most people returning back disappointed for not securing a seat in the stadium. As it turns out, I was one of those who failed to secure a seat.

I was initially disappointed for not being able to see the ceremony. But the experience of being part of the “interested” crowd is an eye opener. Wagah was an itinerary on my trip to Amritsar because it is closely located to the city and there is nothing in Amritsar after you had seen the Golden temple (and few other temples). The patriotic zeal is evident everywhere as one nears the check point. Face-painted national flag is available on the spot for a price from amateurs who abounds the check point. Some people sang patriotic hindi movie songs as they ride to the check post on auto rickshaws and cars. For a while I thought I was going to a sport match.

The history of Wagah is interesting. It was a small village which was divided between India and Pakistan during the partition. It initially started as a symbol of brotherhood and cooperation between two countries. Over the years the parade manifests the strained India-Pakistan relations evident through the overtures during the drill which is aggressive and physical posturing. The Wagah border is a constant reminder of the animosity that India and Pakistan shares. This is clear when crowds and spectators from both side of the border cheered and clapped for their soldiers. Slogans such as Jai Hind, Vande Mataram and Pakistan Zindabad wrapped up each session.

Wagah mirrors the fragile India and Pakistan relations which continued to be at loggerheads on various issues. But more significantly Wagah captures the image of a nation that is constantly engaging itself with the notion of nationhood. I pondered over the benefits of Wagah which are visible through beautification projects, infrastructural development as well its contribution to tourism of the state. Interestingly Tripura, a state in the North east region of India, is interested in developing a Wagah like model at Akhaura check post with Bangladesh. Since the region continue to exist in the peripheral Indian political and social narrative, certain questions crops up. How far will it contribute to strengthened India’s relation with Bangladesh? More importantly will such a model draw us closer to mainland India in terms of emotional attachment and political affinity? And will it contribute to our concept of nationhood?

I did not go to Wagah to get high on nationalism which was evident the day I reached the check point. And I do not need to paint the national flag on my face or chant vande mataram only because I am at Wagah. In these times of ultra nationalism and faulty patriotism, Wagah and such model should not become the reason which forces me to declare my loyalty to the country. Not now not ever.

 

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Phrangsngi Pyrtuh Written by:

Phrangsngi Pyrtuh teaches in a college and is a fellow traveller

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