Going by my own experience last week, the flag lowering ceremony at Wagah border is definitely the second most popular tourist attraction in Amritsar — the Golden Temple being the indisputable number one. Such is the rush of visitors even in the peak of summers that the Border Security Force (BSF), which conducts the ceremony along with Pakistan’s Sutlej Rangers, has taken to posting “Stadium Full” signs. An estimated 10,000-12,000 tourists come every evening and BSF officials have to turn many people away because of shortage of space in the spectator stands.
Wagah is an Indo-Pak road crossing on the Grand Trunk Road between Amritsar and Lahore. At this border post, each evening, a 40-minute retreat ceremony for lowering of the flags has been held since 1959. In 2001, both sides erected grandstands for the crowds that gather to witness the parade. A kilometre short of Wagah, roadside hawkers sell small national flags and sunshades in tricolour — besides cool water bottles — to the crowds heading to watch the spectacle.
The enthusiasm among the crowd is palpable. It isn’t dampened by the manner in which BSF congregates them and pushes them for the security check — with two steed-mounted BSF troopers physically pushing people to get into a single file. And then there is the VIP process: those with special passes and foreign passports can drive right up to the viewing galleries and get a reserved vantage seat.
When it’s time, a battery of high-megawatt speakers on both sides — facing the other side — blare out patriotic songs. The Indian side has peppered its playing list with a dose of popular Hindi film songs which leads to soccer-like scenes of crowds dancing in the aisles. This is punctuated by loud cries of “Hindustan Zindabad” and “Vande Mataram” from the Indian side, matched in equal volume by the cries of “Pakistan Zindabad”, “Allah-o-Akbar” and “Pakistan ka matlab kya, La ilaha illa Allah” from the other side. The sloganeering on either side is led by officers of the BSF and the Rangers on the mike, exhorting the people to match their volume to their patriotic fervour.
Amidst this cacophony, the guards — the Rangers in grey salwar kameez, the BSF in khaki — march menacingly towards each other, stamping their feet high and hard on the road. The chanting reaches a crescendo as six-foot tall border guards, with their one-foot high fan-shaped tufted turbans, begin a series of intricate goose-steps, kicking their legs above their head, stamping their boots with force, and veering off with handshakes and salutes after lowering the flag to the sound of bugles. The only significant difference between the two sides is the two women troopers of the BSF who start the parade on the Indian side.
Although the choreographed routine of the retreat ceremony that ends in the slamming of the border gates is a lot less aggressive than it used to be, the posturing is still overly orchestrated and theatrical. In April 2004, the BSF and the Rangers agreed “to do away with aggressive gestures during the ritual” but that agreement did not last long. Finally in 2010, the two sides decided to tone down some offensive gestures like fist-gestures, thumb-showing and staring at each other. Consequently, the troopers now properly shake hands during the ceremony. The Pakistani side, however, went back on its agreement with the Indian proposal to further do away with aggressive gestures and orchestrated boot-stomping during the ritual.
The daily sunset ritual — with its coordination, discipline and precision — may be an enjoyable spectacle but what is the point of having this carefully choreographed piece of pantomime aggression? Is it a call to rally around the flag? Or a display of uber-patriotism and feel-good jingoism? Is it a benign Indo-Pak version of the Roman gladiatorial contests — a redundant spectacle embodying nothing but posturing? Or is it simply where tourism meets nationalism?
The pointlessness of Wagah ceremony should be raised by the BSF in its biennial meeting with the Rangers in Delhi next month. BSF should unilaterally decide to revert to a standard, dignified parade at the retreat ceremony and let Rangers continue, if it so wishes, with the over-the-top routine. India isn’t Pakistan — or its mirror-image — and there is no place better than Wagah to let the world see it.
Sushant K Singh is Fellow for National Security at the Takshashila Institution and editor of Pragati-The Indian National Interest Review