The Attari – Wagah border ceremony on the Indian side should be visited by every Indian at least once. It is a mirror to the idea of what the idea of India has become today and tells us why despite so many vivisections India still is a vibrant, alive and tolerant nation. As one knows, some visitors go to Attari – Wagah border for a patriotic fervor, some only for entertainment and for some for a peek at military maneuvers. But as one tries to feel the atmosphere there, one may also find an unmistakable feeling about our nation’s identity that is emerging.
While visiting the ceremony last week, I came face to face with the realization of what had happened when my nation was forced to break into two parts based on a belief by some that they can’t coexist and live with us, those of another religion and placing the responsibility of that decision on us, painting us as intolerant. The subsequent events as many now believe happened not just because of a religious dogma but because of absence of an assertive leadership on the part of Hindus.
But how has our country survived after a period of mindless violence that divided it in two countries in 1947? The Attari – Wagah border ceremony presents two alternate realities. One is of a nation having an ancient identity finding its roots while the other groping for a nationhood based on a religious identity.
Like many of my generation, I was skeptical of going to Attari – Wagah border. For those who don’t know there is a daily ceremony involving the Indian and Pakistani forces, which is full of pomp and grandeur. I had been brought up on a literature that abhors militaristic display. I had heard from friends who had been there that it is a glorified, institutionalized state display of power designed to intimidate, creating a paranoia of hatred between two nations. I had been told it pointed to an unfinished business, a closure that hadn’t taken place and needs to be kept alive. When I came back after watching it, I realized not only I was wrong, but I had seen a wound and a memory that is healing on our side but may not be happening on the other.
The ceremony shows that India has a resilience that still lives. Indians as a resilient people are rarely talked about but our resilience comes out through our humor, our myths and nowadays through political discourses. The resilience of Indians can be likened to those societies which faced long periods of colonization. The tag of being slaves, being told they deserved to be nothing but oppressed, doesn’t let go off a society even if it wants to. Our colonizers while leaving left behind their clones whose job was to denigrate every attempt by us to develop a voice. They were described in a language that is life negating, carefully chosen by state sponsored intellectuals. As I saw, Attari – Wagah border showed to me what the original voice of Indians is and perhaps has always been.
The first thing that hits any observer at Attari – Wagah border is the array of clothes and colors on the Indian side. Dhotis, saris, suits, jeans, lehengas, achkans of every color vies with Michael Jackson and Bhagat Singh t-shirts. Several Indian women came wearing jewelry. On the other side one could see only two major colors, green and black. It made the picture a sharp contrast and if I may add, a little gloomy. The unmoving black and green robes stood in sharp contrast to the vibrant dresses of the Indians, smiling and singing.
The second thing that strikes on the Indian side is the electrifying atmosphere in contrast to the near total silence on the other. The Indian side is alive with chants, slogans and songs related to freedom struggle. Almost every man, woman was singing and clapping. Don’t those songs, often from pre-independence, have any relevance for the other side? We got our independence together, after all. But as I listened to the voices on our side, I felt in them a joy, an assertiveness that had no hatred or rancor for anyone despite the fact that our nation has been attacked four times and faced numerous terrorist attacks. Does this spirit reflect our national ethos or tolerance to grow after every adversity and rise above it? What do those who say pluralism and tolerance is dead in India have to say on this? The Indian voice seemed to me full of compassion, of brotherhood. It doesn’t provoke but cleanses and heals.
A middle aged white couple came and sat next to us. Looking at the crowd behavior on both sides, the man exclaimed, “What a difference?” An Indian man next to me asked him which country he was from. The man answered, “My grandfather worked in India before 1947. I have grown up hearing stories of the ‘Raj’.”
Sitting there it seemed that there are just not two nations here but two very distinct identities, two very different images that overwhelm and do not match. Separated by just a gate and a thin line, on one side is a nation with an ancient civilization which is trying to reclaim its suppressed roots and identity after centuries of slavery. The other though torn out of the same land doesn’t seem to be doing so. It has chosen another path which has its identity rooted in religious separateness alone from the other and faces an alienation which is irreversible. Even though the two have common roots, a shared history and birth, the other side shows no such symbols. There seems only an uncertainty, a confusion of who they are as people, what their nation stands for. The Indian crowd affirms while the latter seems only to negate. There are historical forces on both sides here, of forgiveness and healing trying to bury a hatred that killed millions not so long ago. It seems only one side understands it and trying to bring a closure? Will time be able to reach the other side and be able to convince them too? I pray it does.
A commando from the Indian side came as a cheerleader. He called out to the women from the stands to come down in the arena and carry the flag. Nearly three hundred women came running. A mother came holding her infant, a grandma came waving her stick. One by one the women carried the Indian flag and ran across the stand waving it before passing it to the next woman. The transformation was electrifying. Their chin jutted high, shoulders thrown back, they made an intense eye contact telling everyone that Indian women are the flag bearers of India. Observing them I was gripped with an image, of a hundred years ago that I had seen in a documentary film on British India. A woman held the tricolor high and fell down hit by a bullet from police but passed it on to the next one before falling down. She too passed it on but no one let it fall to the ground.
“There are very few women on the other side. They only sit on the stand.” The Britisher remarked ruefully. “Why this difference? Is it because only of religion?”
“I don’t think so,” I added telling him the story. “The women of India did that a hundred years ago crossing caste, creed and religion and is etched forever on every Indian’s memory. In India we grew up on stories of freedom fighters who died upholding the flag. Perhaps there is not much story as such on the other side.” He nodded. “I also noticed that the women on your side came running on their own. That tells a lot.” He stopped as if he didn’t have the proper words for a moment and then said, “I have visited both the countries. In India I notice you have symbols of freedom like Jalianwalla Bagh and Cellular Jail. Do they have any meaning on the other side? Do they tell these stories to their children?”
I couldn’t tell him. Several years ago I had met someone from Pakistan on a trip. His grown up sons who had just passed college having studied history, knew nothing of the freedom struggle, nothing of Jalianwallah Bagh or Cellular jail. They only knew that their Quaid e Azam had got them freedom away to prevent Indian domination.
Meanwhile the ceremony had started. There was the ritual lowering of flags and closing of the gates. The uniformed men wore a picture of military valor and adventurism through their parade making poses and gestures. As the Indian side roared and roared with enthusiasm, the other side seemed to miss the collective energy. “Is it because they have lost four wars to you?” the Britisher asked me. “I think it may be much more than that,” I replied.
The wound of partition is something that India is still healing from but is narrowing the gap. It may still not be over for a long time. In times to come, it will find its expression through more legends, stories and myths. Will the same happen for those across the border? Not that people of Pakistan didn’t suffer but they went into denial and forced a different meaning for the freedom struggle and why they had to separate from India. In trying to cut themselves off from everything that was Indian, they cut themselves off from their very roots. India, the parent nation beset with a history of slavery and oppression, didn’t and owned up every bit of its past and is still doing so. That if had been a legacy for both could have led to find a common healing ground. But it was not to be. For Pakistan, the freedom struggle was not chosen to be part of either their history or identity. Do they see India as a historical land where their forefathers lived? Or do they see it as a land their ancestors conquered and ruled? The posture of the forces on the Pakistani side shows it is the latter.
As the ceremony finished and we came out, I couldn’t stop feeling a sense of sadness. The demand for partition by Jinnah was met not by courage but by an empty bravado of our own father of nation who said that it will happen only over his dead body. But it was not to be so. The apostle of truth didn’t oppose it through his words or deeds. He didn’t have a hunger strike or begin a movement to stop the vivisection of his motherland. Was it the realization, albeit late on his part that creating guilt through fasts worked for one community only? Only history will tell.
The voice that I heard, I pray, should become a million times stronger in the coming days. It is the voice of hope and aspiration for my people who didn’t give in. On the other hand, will the voice too that wasn’t, ever rise? I believe if they give up their identity based on negation and hatred it will.
I wanted to say before leaving that the idea of nation cannot be sustained through wars, violence, terrorism or an ideology of hatred. Neither can it be through declaring a thousand year war. Any hatred would burn those first who are its progenitors.
Can Attari and Wagah border reflect a message of peace one day? The memories they perpetuate, will it ever turn to be healing? There are few areas on earth which have seen more bloodshed and death than the fields around them. But as the two countries go on a path that becomes more and more divergent in their identity, who amongst us will come forward to arrest it and say enough is enough and be a torch bearer to prevent further bloodshed. I wish I knew.
The parting words were said by the Britisher as we left. “I am glad I was on this side.”
“What was the difference?” I asked.
He smiled and said, “Life.”