Two weeks ago, Joanna and I went to the Wagah border ceremony on the border of India and Pakistan. Four days later, a suicide bomber killed 60+ spectators on the Pakistani side of the same ceremony.
When I heard the news, I was sipping chai with an Afghani neighbour, safely home in Canada. The Urdu words seemed scrambled, and my mind was unable, or unwilling to order them. Sadly, I looked to Varun for clarification. His wide eyes confirmed the story.
Could it be? The very same place we had sat, just days earlier? 60 people–killed? For what?! My heart reeled from the sadness and horror of it.
After the wedding and Diwali celebrations fizzled out and everyone had returned to work and home, Joanna and I remained in India for one extra week. We scoured the guidebook for ideas and considered the suggestions of friends and Indian family. Finally, we made a plan that included an overnight trip to Amritsar, a city in Punjab, located north west of New Delhi. While planning the trip, my Mother in law suggested we attend the Wagah border ceremony. One glance in the guidebook told me this was a must-see:
Every afternoon, just before sunset, members of the Indian and Pakistani military meet at the border post between Attari and Wagah to engage in a 30-minute display of military showmanship that verges on pure theatre. Officially, the purpose of the ceremony is to lower the national flag and formally close the border for the night, but what actually occurs is a bizarre mix of formal marching, flag-folding, chest beating, forceful stomping and almost comical high-stepping, as the two sides try to outdo each other in pomp and circumstance. The oiled moustaches and over-the-top dress uniforms only add to the theatrical mood.
India: Lonely Planet (2013)
To reach the border and seating area, attendees walk about 1 kilometre from the parking lot. Along the road are various security check points, intermingled with vendors selling popcorn, peanuts and children offering face paintings of Indian or Pakistani flags. As we walked, Joanna and I marvelled at the incredibly festive atmosphere.
We were shepherded to an enclosed section for foreigners and VIP’s. On the road below, women were dancing to the Bollywood music that blared from the speakers.
As I scanned the crowd and craned my neck to see the Pakistani crowds across the gate, a lump caught in my throat. I blinked back tears, thinking about the significance of such a ceremony. While there’s much about history, religion, politics and international relations of which I’m ignorant, the crippled relationship between India and Pakistan has always struck me as that of estranged brothers. I was moved by the possibility that such a ceremony could even proceed between two countries who have experienced such hostility and violence.
Not everyone perceives the ceremony with such nostalgia, as it has been described as, “carefully choreographed contempt.” Perhaps this is so. As we sat in the fading sunlight, Joanna and I wrestled to understand the mood of the event. Attendees on both sides were lead in pro-country cheers, flags were waved and soldiers marched with gusto. On the one hand, nationalism was proudly promoted. On the other hand, as a foreigner and someone who understands very little culturally and linguistically, I almost wondered if the ceremony was done in good fun.
Whether a hostile festival or a ironic gesture of friendship, in the days following the attack officials in both India and Pakistan decided to hold the ceremony despite the attacks. A Pakistani general remarked that continuing to hold the ceremony, “proved that terrorists can’t break the morale and zeal of the nation” (BBC article). Perhaps, this gruesome tragedy can serve to unite two nations against terrorism, not one another.
The excitement and levity of the Wagah border ceremony stand juxtaposed to the seriousness of national security and long-standing hatred. In the same way, there’s an odd mixture of optimism and conviction in continuing to hold the ceremony after a targeted attack. Perhaps the glimmer of light lies in this apparent contradiction: somewhere between hope and danger, between enmity and festivity, a commonality can be forged between people, regardless of creed or citizenship.