A Parody of Enmity

The Retreat ritual at Attari mocks the seriousness of Indo-Pak ties

Pravin Sawhney and Ghazala Wahab

Attari, Amritsar: The white doves of peace are ritually buried every evening during the Retreat ceremony at the Attari-Wagah border between India and Pakistan. The antagonism between the two countries is joyously celebrated by the Border Security Force (BSF) and Pakistan Rangers through a rehearsed and calibrated exercise of aggressive drill, provocative hand gestures, angry expressions and a cacophony of jingoistic movie songs which, robbed of all musicality, sound like noise. Cheering the soldiers on from the galleries are people, running into thousands, waving flags, raising jingoistic slogans, screaming their lungs out as the BSF soldiers metaphorically show the middle finger to the Pakistan Rangers. Across the two-tiered, heavily ironed gate, apparently the Rangers return the compliment in full measure.

The start of the Retreat ceremony 2

“This is what the audience wants,” explains a BSF officer. “It gives them a sense of patriotism.” Apparently, the audience across the gate wants it too. Several years ago (perhaps, when enmity was not big business and patriotism was not served up on demand), there was a proposal to cut down the vitriolic ceremony, but it was turned down by the Punjab governments on both sides of the divide.

Then in 1997, home minister, the original manufacturer of jingoistic patriotism, L.K. Advani, arrived at Wagah and realised the potential of the evening drill. He sanctioned the construction of the visitors’ gallery (rows and rows of seats), a Swarn Jayanti Gate (commemorating 50 years of Indian Independence) and a Quarter-Guard, thereby formalising the celebration of hostility. These were inaugurated by him on 26 November 2000. Never to be outdone, Pakistan tried to do one up on the facilities built by India. It built a fort-like medieval structure in marble to match the sand stone contemporary construction on the Indian side.

Pointing to that across the gate, the BSF officer says, “They are copy-cats. They always do what we do.” He doesn’t realise that he has completely missed the nature of India-Pakistan relations; where there is always a tit for tat, where harmony is deliberately interrupted by conflict and where hostility is bandied about with as much care as love is. The Attari exchange offers a quick lesson in the complexity of this relationship, which is shaped essentially by a visceral jealousy and an intense desire for one-upmanship. The Retreat puts in perspective the reality why there can never be total peace between the two countries.

So, on October 17, as sun starts its descend, several metres long queues start to form at the entrance gate where the visitors are screened for security reasons; while bags are not allowed, cameras are. Since 2000, the flag-lowering and retreat ceremony at Attari has found a place on tourist itineraries, with travel agents weaving in an evening of patriotism with an afternoon of piety at the Golden Temple. Such is the worldwide popularity of the ritual that even foreigners come in to see what, perhaps, is one of its own kind of ceremony anywhere in the world. A separate enclosure has been made for the foreigners (next to the VIP enclosure) who are handed tiny Indian flags upon arrival, which they would dutifully wave along with the enthusiastic Indians during the ceremony.

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