By Ghazala Akbar
Midway between the cities of Lahore in Pakistan and Amritsar in India each about 25 km away is the village called Wagah. It stands on an ancient pathway that stretches from Kabul in the North West to Calcutta in the North East and beyond to Shonargaon in Bangladesh. Known variously in history as Uttara Patha, Sadaq – e -Azam or the Grand Trunk road, it was until very recently, the only road link between India and Pakistan. The other one fittingly, is in Kashmir.
Wagah is the place where Cyril Radcliffe and the Boundary Commission drew a line over a map separating a village, a people and a Sub – continent. Nothing symbolises the haphazard nature of the map re-drawing exercise 65 years ago than the curious division at Wagah. The eastern part of the village went to India and the western part to Pakistan. The people (albeit of differing faiths) look the same. The language sounds the same. The flat landscape also appears the same. Although the grass is no greener on the other side, cows stray from one side to the other. And birds— with scant respect for frontiers fly freely across making nests on both sides.
On the ground however, human beings zealously guard their own bit of turf making a noisy, grotesque public show of the division. At sunset every day, vociferous crowds gather on both sides, hurling choice epithets and insults at each other. They jeer and cheer at a unique ceremony, which the film- maker and comedian Michael Palin describes as ‘carefully controlled contempt!’ Apart from being a bizarre spectacle, it is also very revelatory of the state of mind of our two peoples and our psychological make-up.
Seven-foot tall men, chosen for their physical might and facial hair strut like angry peacocks eyeballing each other with hostile looks and gestures. It is a masterly display of silent aggression. Flags are lowered and gates slammed shut. It is in military parlance, a ‘beating of the retreat’ ceremony. The Indian Border Security Force and the Pakistan Rangers have jointly followed it since 1959. In the past few years, it has become a major tourist attraction, a must on a tour of Lahore or Amritsar attracting thousands on both sides.
At times of heightened tension between the two countries, the crowds become bigger and more excitable as it was during Operation Parakram, the massive troop build-up ordered in the wake of the 2001 attack on the Indian Parliament. Alarmingly, a Pakistani Jawan carried away by the spirit of the occasion raised his weapon aiming it at Indian spectators to squeals of delight and horror. It was an impromptu theatrical gesture. Fortunately no harm was done. Over the years by mutual consent, some of the more aggressive gestures have been toned down and no guns are loaded. A brusque handshake concludes the ceremony. There is even talk now of women participating in the parade.
The truth is that for all the combative posturing, the ceremony is actually a very carefully co-ordinated operation, requiring co-operation from both sides. The flags have to be lowered at exactly the same speed so that they cross each other in unison. One cannot be higher or lower. What else do you expect! It is after all the official border of India and Pakistan, the most contentious, the most momentous and the most hate-filled: even more than the Berlin Wall that divided East and West Germany or the35th Parallel that divides North and South Korea today. This is where millions of refugees on both sides of the divide made their way– in all manners of transport but — mostly by foot – hungry and dehydrated but elated to be with their kind on the other side. At the stroke of midnight on 14 August 1947, they were not one people but two.
As we go into customary overdrive, marking the month of the passing of the Pakistan Resolution in 1940 with a ritual regurgitation of certain hallowed phrases, (‘demand for a separate Muslim homeland, ‘two nation theory,’) one is inclined to ask, what exactly is the purpose of this ceremony at Wagah? Is this just a bit of harmless fun — the type of ribbing high – spirited lads might indulge in a village playground? Is it a symbolic battleground for macho male egos to release an emotional valve? Or is to remind ourselves, that we were once one people but a line arbitrarily drawn had decided we are two and would remain so forever? Maybe it’s none of the above. Just simply — a show of respect for international borders, sub – continental style. Whatever! One cannot help but feel there must be other ways of making this point than a choreographed show of hatred!
I must confess ashamedly that as a participant, I too was carried away. It was akin to being in an India- Pakistan cricket match surrounded by fellow – supporters. One felt safe and secure being with one’s own kind. The atmosphere was electrifying. It was chauvinism at its rawest. Green-clad cheerleaders with megaphones ran up and down the gangway asking ‘Pakistan ka matlab kya? We replied robotically, la Illaha illallah. Egged further, we pointed to the Indian side ‘superpower, super power? Then skyward, ‘Allah! Allah! It was great fun while it lasted but I cringed when I recalled my behaviour later. Did the Indians on the other side – even louder and larger than the Pakistan crowd — feel the same way, I wondered. And I wonder– and worry still today about the effect of all this on the youth and the children who sat with me that day and parroted slogans mindlessly.
My unease at the war-like passions displayed at the ceremony is exacerbated by a study and a set of figures released recently by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute on International arms transfers between 2007- 2011. It reveals that the epicentre of the arms trade is not the oil- rich Arab States, Iran or even security paranoid Israel — but our very own South Asia. India is the leader of the pack accounting for 10% of all global arms imports. In third place is Pakistan at 5%.
What this adds up to is a very depressing statistic that should cause concern for the poor citizens of both countries. We are engaged in a serious arms race that either can ill-afford. The other three countries on the list (China 5% South Korea 6% and Singapore 4%) have at least achieved an acceptable standard of living for their people. We have not. The countries of the Sub-continent after 65 years of Independence remain firmly at the bottom of the heap in every development index. Sure, we live in a tough neighbourhood and need to protect ourselves from regional bullies; sure, we are in a War on Terror. What must not be forgotten however is that it is our own policies and attitudes that have often contributed to make this, one dangerous neighbourhood.
A further source of trepidation is the chatter emanating from the recently formed Difa- e- Pakistan Council. This is an umbrella group comprising of 40 organisations featuring august luminaries as Hafiz Saeed, Maulana Samiul Haq and ex- General Gul. It is a who’s who of well-known hawks. When we have nuclear- weapons and a magnificent army that does a fabulous job at the borders just what exactly are they purporting to defend? A visit to the website of this outfit leaves no room for doubt: ‘We envisage defending Pakistan, the only ideological nation carved in the name of Islam with our wealth and our lives. Pakistan stands as the beacon of the Unity of the Ummah or La illaha illallah (there is only one God), the beacon of our faith.’
‘Living in dignity’ and ‘dying with honour’ are also a part of its mission statement. Since the Pakistan Water Movement is also listed as a member we have a hint here of a possible cause for a future conflict. Visitors are asked: Should we have bilateral relations with India before the settlement of all core issues? 89.1% of site-visitors vote a resounding No. And in case one thought Cyril Radcliffe’s rationale for the official border at Wagah, was to continue trade and commerce via the GT road, think again: ‘a conspiracy was hatched to grant India the status of ‘Most Favoured Nation’ by the Government of Pakistan recently…the trade drive is nothing but a strategy to weaken Pakistan economically and save the sinking Indian economy…’
Move over to the Facebook page of the Difa- e – Pakistan Council: The timeline photo of this technologically- savvy organisation will send a chill through the spine of internet warriors. It is a ‘challo dilli challo’ moment to fantasise about — a panoramic battle scene with tanks and airplanes plus four horsemen of the apocalypse over the Red Fort in Delhi. Naturally, a green and white flag flies over the central gate. Minorities should have no cause for alarm. The PDC also lists two Hindu, one Sikh and a Christian as it members. It is a broad coalition cutting across sectarian and ethnic divides.
It would be unfair of me to single out the DPC for its jingoism or suggest that Pakistanis alone are the obstacle towards Indo- Pak amity. The laboriously slow pace of what officials calls the ‘normalisation of ties’ between India and Pakistan is a cause for disquiet. Abnormality is more the reality. In spite of visits by businesspersons, it does not appear that the other side is in any particular hurry to facilitate people- to- people contact. Visits of Ministers, officials, smiles, handshakes and gratuitous platitudes aside, there is precious little our Government has to show for its troubles. Never mind tackling core issues, even smaller confidence-building measures like issuing of visas or the inclusion of Pakistani Cricketers in the IPL are yet to materialise in any meaningful way.
A useful pointer to the bureaucratic mind-set and hints of a dual policy adopted by our erstwhile neighbour is a curiously – worded requirement for Indian citizenship. Issued by the Press Information Bureau, Government of India Ministry of Home affairs, 14th March 2012, a new condition for becoming an Indian national is that the applicant has not exhibited sympathies towards Pakistan at any time. Wow! Wonder who came up with that one! And just how are they are going to establish that! Presumably, the applicant after making a public bonfire of all his Rahat Ali Khan CDs and Veena Malik posters heads straight to the Wagah ceremony screaming anti – Pakistani slogans!
Which brings me to my original question: why do we have that ceremony at the border anyway? When State and non- state actors on both sides of the divide are putting up a side show of their own, subtly re-enforcing invisible barriers of hate, why put our soldiers through silly walks in which they risk serious injury to their backs and legs. Even the Nazis did not goosestep in that fashion! I don’t know about you but to my warped, prejudiced mind the people of the Sub-continent deserve better. After 65 years, a change of guard, a new script and a fresh act would be most welcome. There cannot be military solutions for everything. Just ask the Americans.