Like everything else, the Beating Retreat Ceremony at Wagah Border, which once had a jingoistic tinge to it, too has changed. The author witnesses the spectacle and the changing mood of the people
As the sun sets, the iron gates on either side of India and Pakistan at Wagah border are shut with a bang to signal the conclusion of a stirring ceremony, The Beating Retreat, and the audience is shaken out of a spell. It is a 25-minute spectacle that rekindles patriotism every evening at the Wagah Border, less than 30 kilometres from Amritsar.
The Beating Retreat ceremony, initiated in 1959, is a “not to be missed” event for tourists to Amritsar. A visit to the tranquil Golden Temple is followed by a 45-minute drive to the border that evokes a rousing response from the citizens on Indian and Pakistani soil. “It is like a cricket match,” comments Masood Wani, who has travelled with his wife and daughter from Baramulla to be part of a thrilling experience on a cold evening.
The Border Security Force (BSF) and the Pakistan Rangers are the architects of this ceremony that has been performed uninterrupted since its conception. “The ceremony is held even when it rains,” comments an official even as spectators take up every seat available. Work will begin soon on the construction of a 25,000-seat theatre as a budget of 25 crore has been sanctioned for the project by the Ministry of Home Affairs.
A young girl breaks into an impromptu dance to the “Chak De, Chak De India” sporting the National Flag and captures the attention of one and all. Girls in pair jog with the National Flag and the audience joins enthusiastically with slogans of “Vande Matram” and “Bharat Mata Ki Jai.” The atmosphere is charged up as patriotic songs blare from huge speakers with the Gulzar-Rahman-Sukhvinder combine eliciting a booming “Jai Ho, Jai Ho” participation for their Oscar winning number.
A BSF announcement politely reminds the audience to desist from religious slogans. The galleries respond with booming cries of “Bharat Mata Ki Jai, Hindustan Zindabad and Vande Matram” even as the audience from the other side tries to match. At the border, the reference is “unka (theirs) and “apna” (ours) when describing the surrounding areas.
During past visits to the Wagah border ceremonies, one could not have missed the nationalist flavour that was laced by religious tones. It is different this time in a clear indication that the mood of the people has changed. The emphasis is on applauding the duty that a BSF jawan performs at the border. There is a beeline to be photographed by the imposing BSF guard, who obliges with a smile, towering behind citizens of all ages. There are a few foreign nationals too who join the photo clicking rush.
The ceremony takes off on a rousing note with two lady BSF guards marching majestically to trigger a wave of appreciation from the crowd. The gates on Indian and Pakistani side are thrown open and the tall jawans on either side commence a superbly choreographed act with a fascinating show of foot stamping. The atmosphere is charged up, the jawans glare and raise their arms in aggressive gestures that ultimately culminate in hard handshake as the flags are lowered and the gates are shut.
The spectators are allowed a closer peep of the ‘other’ side, just as the Pakistan spectators jostle to catch a glimpse of the Indian side. Cameras click furiously as Indians and Pakistanis, acknowledge each other with a smile, some wanting to shake hands but courteously refrained by the guards.
With mutual agreement, the BSF and the Pakistan Sutlej Rangers did tone down the aggressive acts a few years ago. As Deputy Inspector General, BSF (Amritsar Sector) M. F. Farooqui explained, “Basically this is a flag ceremony. Effort has been made to enhance the co-operation and cordial gestures have been synchronized. It is a symbol of nationality, a workshop to initiate a sense of patriotism and showcase the forces guarding the border.”
“Hope you enjoyed the ceremony,” the announcer brings the curtain down. The border gates open again as Sada-e-Sarhad, the Delhi-Lahore bus passes through in a symbolic reminder of the efforts to keep open the channel of interaction between citizens of India and Pakistan.
The crowd melts. The jingoistic cries are strikingly missing!