A chapter from my north India trip which took me across the beautiful states of Kashmir, Jammu and Punjab. Below is an account of my experience at the retreat ceremony at Wagah border.
The Retreat Ceremony
I have never been to a sports arena in my life. All those matches and football finals – I‘ve always caught it on TV. The thrill of watching the game live, the thunder of the spectators as their chant reverberates throughout makes one hair stand on end. A similar experience was in store for me at Wagah.
Pradip and I had ascended to the topmost tier of the amphitheatre. This had both its advantage as well as a disadvantage. Being at the top gave as a bird’s eye view of the entire area. But we were so far away that the gate looked very minuscule. I had to be on my toes, the whole time, for a better view.
The amphitheatre quickly filled up with people. The men were seated on one side while the ladies were separated by a barricaded pathway in the middle. The crowd were going berserk with excitement. Some of the people had brought giant Indian flags which they were waving in the air manically. Opposite the amphitheatre was the Border security post. Huge speakers blared popular patriotic songs:
Yeh desh hain veer jawaano ka, albelo ka, mastano ka,
Iss desh ka yaaro kya kehna, Yeh hain duniya ka nagina
‘Oh, this country is of the brave, of the bold, of the crazy,
Oh friends! What to tell you about this nation? It is a gem of the world.’
A man in whites, perhaps the master of ceremonies, nudged and teased the crowds. He jumped around, screaming in his mike, egging the crowds to shout even more.
“HAVEN’T YOU EATEN ENOUGH TODAY???” he thundered, “LOUDER!!”
He held the mike in the air, trying to capture the voices of the people in it. He would hold it once in front of the men and then would turn it towards the females.
“MY GIRLS!! YOU NEED TO BE EVEN LOUDER THAN THEM,” he shouted enthusiastically, “COME ON!! MOTHER INDIA NEEDS YOU TO SHOUT!!”
The girls became hysterical by the minute. There was thunderous clapping all around which I am sure would have carried over to Pakistan’s side as well. I peeked over. There were hardly any people over there. I was sure that it was going to be filled in some time.
The compere disappeared for some time inside the post. The crowd filled his absence with even more cheers and claps. He reappeared quickly, this time he had a couple of flags in his hands. He walked over to the women seated at the lower tiers and beckoned a couple of
girls. Handing them the flags, he told them to run to the gate and come back.
The girls did as instructed. As they ran, he urged the crowd to shout even louder. It was a wondrous sight to behold!! The flags waving with vigour as the girls ran at top speed to the gate and darted back. The crowd cheered madly.
“BHARAT MATA KI JAI!”
Within no time, a couple of queues formed up where women of all ages stood in line. They all awaited their turn to run with it. The compere bought two more flags and very soon, the road brightened with the colours of the flag.
The voices reached such a high pitch that the sounds of the speakers could be heard barely over it. Standing at the top, I felt the voices impaling my every fibre. My hair stood on end as chills ran down my spine. Our voices joined the din as we both shouted the slogans with the others. My hands went numb with clapping. The patriotic fever was so thick that one could feel it engulfing them completely.
The compere had taken the flags away. He now invited the women to dance who responded to his request with unabashed enthusiasm. The crowd cheered them madly. The women danced with energy. They looked like they had no care in the world. The men clapped for them along with the beats of the song. I noticed that there was not a single man passing any derogatory remarks or chiding the women.
Besides me, Pradip too had started to dance. He raised his arms in the air and started clapping. The men stared at him. But such kind of stares never mattered to him. When it comes to dancing, Pradip sheds away his inhibitions like no other. He urged me to dance as well. But I simply clapped along with him and continued to cheer.
I waited for our girls to join the group of the dancing women. I eagerly scanned the crowd for a glimpse of a familiar face. But none of them had gone down.
“Why aren’t they going?” I asked Pradip, who looked equally bewildered.
“Yeah, even I’m surprised,” said Pradip, “Wait let me call Karen.”
Just when he was about to call her, we saw Karen walking down the steps. She was followed by Neha, Priti, Tina and Reema. They started to da nce along with the other ladies. A couple of women of other nationalities too joined the crowd and were having fun. I saw that our girls had started to do garba, a traditional folk dance and were immediately joined by a couple more women.
The dancing went on for some time before the guards finally turned off the music. The women went back to their seats. Several children approached the tourists for pictures, to which they happily obliged. Our girls sat on the road instead of walking back up. It was time for the retreat ceremony to begin.
The retreat ceremony is an event conducted daily at the borders of both the nations when the flag is lowered at the point of sunset. To witness this event, people of both countries arrive in huge numbers on a daily basis. Although the stands on the Indian side were completely packed, the stands on Pakistan’s side were hardly filled. Those who came had occupied the lower seats.
The compere requested the crowd to settle down as the ceremony was just about to begin.
Soldiers in full ceremonial uniforms walked out of the post. They stood in a straight line facing the people. A couple of female guards too came out and stood at the mouth of the post. The gait of those soldiers was so majestic that I felt ashamed stooping. I immediately straightened up.
A soldier blew a bugle, announcing it was time for the proceedings to begin. Like me, many in the crows waited with bated breath to see what happened next. I had heard a lot of the aggressiveness displayed by the guards of either side during the ceremony.
The compere held the mike in front of a soldier. The soldier said the word ‘Guard’ but stretched it quite far. He started shouting orders according to which the guards waiting outside dutifully followed. The female guards marched towards the gates saluted the soldiers on the other sides, tapped their right legs really hard on the ground, then forked and stood by the gates.
The soldier at the post kept on issuing orders and soon, other guards went marching past to the gate. This continued on. The crowds followed them as one. No one seemed to be breathing. The guards finally opened the gates. They did that such ferocity that it actually bounced off the wall before being steadied by the soldier.
Then came the part I had been waiting for. The guards on either side had thrown open the gates. The moment the gates opened, the crowd started clapping. The compere resumed his energetic manner but this time, he guided the crowd with his actions rather than words.
Just then, a bus started driving from Pakistan, making its way towards the Indian land. The people inside had their heads outside the windows and were waving the flags of both the nations. The crowd roared in approval. I really couldn’t grasp what the compere was saying over the surrounding din. The bus was decorated brightly and soon exited by the Swarna gate.
Then two soldiers marched to the gate separately and saluted to the Pakistani soldier. However, they raised their right leg so high in the air that it must have crossed way above the other soldier’s head. The same thing was done by the Pakistani soldier who stamped in the same way. Both the soldiers shook each other’s hands very aggressively. This was followed by a couple of soldiers from each side marching and standing in front of each other.
“Watch carefully now!” yelled Pradip.
“What are they doing?” I asked. I saw the soldiers displaying their aggressive side to one another but couldn’t understand the reason for the same. The Pakistani soldiers did the same with the soldiers coming very close to each other. Every time the guards did something, people on either side clapped and whooped them. The flags kept on waving over.
It was maddening to be so far. However, I wasn’t missing any of the action. I could see the Indian soldiers but missed out on the action from the Pakistani soldiers. The only time I saw them was when they inched closer to the gates and threw their chests out in response to the Indian soldier’s display of aggression.
It was outrageous. The soldiers looked like they could kill each other with their bare hands if they got the chance to do so. I’m sure their faces would reflect the controlled hatred in themselves for each other’s country. I wondered whether this elaborate ceremony had
ever failed and resulted in a scuffle in the past.
Finally, the guards positioned themselves opposite the pole pillar. Amid loud cheers and claps, the guards threw the rope of the flag to the other soldiers standing by. At the best of the bugle, the flag was being taken down. This was done at the same time. Both, Indian and Pakistani flags were lowered at the same time.
After being lowered, the guard of honour folded the flag smartly in a couple of seconds and carried it back gallantly to the post. Meanwhile the other soldiers continued their marching and their display of aggression towards one other. And with a final blow, the gates closed as the crowd thundered and screamed with patriotic chants.
“It’s over!!” I said.
It was all over.
Now, did I realize why my friend spoke about this so much passion. The ceremony truly soaks you in a patriotic frenzy. It drowns in nationalistic fervour. You emerge from the ceremony, after witnessing the display of aggression, not with hatred for Pakistan, but with the feeling of being part of this great nation where people of all faiths forget their birth identity and mark themselves in the same colours. You do not just watch the ceremony at Wagah. You experience it.
I stood there on the topmost tier, which was almost empty by then. Pradip had spotted Ashwath and the other guys and went to speak to them. I turned my gaze upwards to the sky. Just then, a sparrow flew over the place. My eyes followed it as it went past the border and onto Pakistan.
I wondered whether the sparrow knew it had crossed an international boundary.
I spotted a couple of the same trees growing on each side. There was no difference in them, not one. They were not coloured in greens or saffron or white. Nor did they have any crescent moon or wheel designed on their leaves. Why this separation then?
It was at that moment when a wonderful thought floated in my mind. A thought so amazing that my face actually broke into a genial smile – the one which came on face very rarely.
How the world would have been if there were no borders amongst us?
Story by: Tony Dsouza.