Yesterday, August 15th, was India’s 70th Independence Day. While it is time for much celebration across the nation (and for diaspora, outside the nation), in recent years it has also been a time of much reflection for me. For example, my newsfeed yesterday was filled quite a bit with friends sharing messages on the traumas of partition, reflections on nationalism, and so on. Others shared articles and information on non-traditional narratives of the independence movement—for example, stories of freedom fighters from poor, rural backgrounds that have been forgotten in the Indian nation’s history books.
This day led me to think more about a recent visit to the Wagah Border between India and Pakistan. As the end of the internship neared a couple weeks ago, all of us from Shahi (the three of us interns and Chitra, Anant and Dr. Leena) visited Amritsar together. Amritsar is known for its famous Golden Temple, but about 30 kilometers away is where the Wagah border is located.
I didn’t hear about Wagah until this summer, when I was talking with a friend who mentioned it. He explained that every day at the border there is a ceremony that takes place, when briefly the gates between India and Pakistan are opened, and soldiers from either side interact with each other. He and others described the ceremony as a unique experience that was not to be missed, as it is the only border between India and Pakistan where such a ceremony is performed. Further, having read more about partition and Indian history this summer, I was excited to see what this ceremony and solidarity between the two nations, who have historically had a tense relationship, could look like.
Going into the ceremony, I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect. I had heard parts of the ceremony were supposed to show solidarity and friendship between the two nations, while others had told me there was a competitive spirit, where each side would try to yell to music and be louder than the other. After passing through security and finally getting our seats (in the foreigner section, which ironically by the way have much better seating than the Indian national section), we settled in. The time before the actual ceremony was filled with nationalistic songs playing in the background as people from the audience danced to them in the bleachers and on the street. Later, different groups of people from the audience volunteered to run up and down the street carrying huge Indian flags. There was also a lot of patriotic cheering, with soldiers on the Indian side encouraging everyone to be louder than the Pakistani side.
Shortly after, the ceremony started. Unlike what I had been expecting, the whole ceremony was choreographed, with very particular steps and movements. Further, a lot of it was very aggressive—the gates of the two countries were flung open, and the soldiers from either side would march up to each other and angrily stomp or display fists. The two videos below (courtesy of Anant) capture some of the ceremony; the first is part of the choreographed sequence, while the second shows the gates being (aggressively) closed after the ceremony ended.
I found myself really surprised and somewhat upset by the whole experience. I suppose I was expecting more solidarity and friendliness. While Alexi and I were discussing how the ceremony was different than imagined, we agreed that we definitely still enjoyed attending and observing it. Anant, who also saw the ceremony with us, explained that he almost preferred for it to be so aggressively patriotic. Although I was surprised at first, he later explained that any solidarity displayed at the border would only be superficial, and might suggest that India and Pakistan are friends, when in fact we have much work to do in that sense.
Talking with an Indian-American friend later, who had attended the ceremony a couple years ago and has actually visited Pakistan, he explained that the ceremony was especially painful for him because his family was forced to migrate during partition. Some of them were even killed in it. We discussed the constructions of borders and the ideas behind them, and it was almost baffling to my friend that the people of the land where his family once lived are now considered to be enemies.
As I was reflecting on these conversations, on our way back from Wagah we ended up going to Sarhad, a dhaba close by. The dhaba, suggested to me by the same friend, is politicized and expresses hope for peace. From the murals and artwork to the food (which is from both sides of the border), the owners of the dhaba envision the two nations healing together from partition and forgiving each other.
While this notion of peace and friendship at Sarhad may be too good to be true, at least for now, nevertheless it was a good note to end the evening on. It also provides a lot of food for thought, especially around Independence Day, when these kind of nationalistic feelings flare up once again.