Celebrating separation: Disturbing scenes at Wagah

Wednesday, 11 December 2013 - 10:59am IST | Agency: DNA

Borders are human creations meant to separate specific regions, countries and cultures with a line drawn by the powerful on the map of the world. These lines, shaped over time, are unnatural and have, more often than not, caused inestimable pain, displacement and the loss of innumerable lives. In Europe people and states have been trying, in recent times, to render these lines increasingly invisible. The result is that crossing many borders nowadays simply means sighting a sign on the highway.

Most Europeans are glad for this. Forty years of struggle preceded the fall of the Berlin Wall, and there were celebrations when it fell. In India things appear to be different. I recently witnessed the Wagah border ceremony, 30 km from Amritsar, and was simply shocked. People —10,000, I was told — were dancing and cheering, celebrating a border that did not exist for centuries before 1947 and, given the similarity of the landscape on either side, would even now, be unnoticeable, but for the presence of the military. There were animators on both sides, like at a holiday resort, motivating and enlivening thousands, while popular Bollywood songs were belted out at incredible volume. People queued up to run with the national flag, to the gate and back, as if high on chauvinistic nationalism.

All this, however was just the curtain-raiser for the really weird ceremony that followed. I watched the marching and behaviour of the Indian soldiers with open-mouthed incredulity. Their biggest achievements seemed to be to kick their legs up as high as possible and sing ‘Om’ as long as possible in a synchronised contestation with the Pakistani soldiers. Even this, however, was nothing compared to the competitive, aggressive swagger and attitudinizing of the soldiers in front of the gate. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger at a body-building competition, soldiers on both sides of the divide tried to beat their ‘opponents’ by showing off their strength and machismo, driving the crowds wild. As a loud finale, they smashed the gates shut like angry children throwing a tantrum.

Everybody seemed more than pleased, eyes gleaming and feet off the ground.

Questions dog the mind: How can so many people from India and Pakistan celebrate the fact that a specific man-made line cannot be crossed without permission? In times where everything and everybody can be intimately linked and connected, and limitless possibilities for sharing exist across the globe, are large numbers of Indians and Pakistanis really happy that they are not able to visit each other after 6pm? Finally, if the form of the border ceremony was inspired by the movements of the peacock, as it is supposed to be, how could this beautiful bird encourage such perversity?

Celebrating separation seems to be against just about everything human beings should wish to achieve. It may well be the case that precisely because borders are, more often than not, just ‘shadow lines’ signifying unnatural separations, their reality needs to be inscribed into peoples’ imaginations through the relentless pursuit of carefully orchestrated, offensive and highly exaggerated emotive practices like those at Wagah. Perhaps, borders and nationalisms need to be erased, and fall off maps, including the maps of our minds. That would truly call for celebration.

The author is an 18-year-old traveller from Innsbruck, Austria, and has been in India since September.


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