It is cited as the world’s most spectacular border ceremony and also the only one of its kind. Every evening, the Border Security Force (BSF) and the Pakistani Rangers execute a perfectly coordinated flag lowering ceremony on the Attari-Wagah border, following which they close the iron gates for the day located on what was once formerly known as the Grand Trunk Road, one of Asia’s oldest and longest, built by Sher Shah Suri over 2,000 years ago, linking Chittagong in Bangladesh to the Afghan capital Kabul. Since partition, this GT Road, renamed National Highway 1, which serves as the only official road link between India and Pakistan, abruptly ends with a BSF border outpost located ahead of Attari village on the hastily drawn Radcliffe Line, a legacy of the British, that resulted in a million deaths and displacement of about 13 million on both sides of the border.
But what had started as a simple flag lowering ceremony 58 years ago in 1959, has deteriorated steadily in recent decades into a “carefully choreographed contempt” and “mock aggression” at the border post, located just 32 km from Amritsar and 24 km from Lahore in the state of Punjab, which is common to both countries. The elaborate ceremony has become a spectacle, which is daily watched by thousands of people seated in specially built amphitheatres on both sides of the border. The ceremony has come to serve as a vent to express resentment and sometimes hostility between two sets of people, who resemble each other and are so much alike.
Indeed, what should normally be a brief, solemn and a no nonsense occasion between two civilised nations, has been reduced to a churlish and crass display of nationalism between two countries, in which, an overzealously patriotic audience has become an integral part of the show. The BSF and the Pakistani Rangers, both of which are otherwise professional organisations that have been raised to guard the border during peace time and assist their respective armies in the event of a war, engage in body language and facial expressions that are far from dignified and behoving of a professional in uniform, much, however, to the delight of the gathered flag waving and slogan shouting public.
Specially selected personnel of the BSF and the Pakistani Rangers—who must be over six feet tall and wear starched uniforms, boots with metal on their soles and elaborate ceremonial turbans—engage in synchronised drills that involve exaggerated goose steps, high kicking towards each other, slamming of shoes hard on the ground and glaring at each other with deliberately widened eyes in mock aggression. On occasions, this has often resulted in constables hurting their feet in particular and causing stress to their backbone and the shinbone—all for misplaced one-upmanship and to pander to the crowds. But much to the amusement of visiting foreign tourists, who are often present in both sets of audiences, the gathered Indians and Pakistanis express their respective patriotism by cheering for their own and jeering at the other. A harder and louder stomping of the shoes, a more intimidating glare and a taller constable of their force are all symbols of one-upmanship and “victory” over the “other” and therefore a cause for momentary “celebration” at the childish and emotionally charged pantomime that this ceremony has become. The aggressiveness at the ceremony is directly dependent on the relations between the two countries—higher the tension, greater the aggressiveness, ironically, much to the delight of the cheering audience.
But does this behove a nation of the size and importance as India? Should India, which seeks its rightful place in the world as a power to be reckoned with, be mimicking Pakistan and making a spectacle of itself vis-a-vis a country that is one third its size and is otherwise held in contempt by South Block?
The fact is that the Attari-Wagah border is the only place where people in fairly large numbers from both countries (which are otherwise economical in granting visas to each other’s citizens) are officially permitted to assemble in such close proximity. This presents an opportunity for India to showcase some of its soft power before a captive Pakistani audience. For example, a couple of specially located giant screens could display scenes of Bollywood and pop music, mixed with visuals of attractive tourism sites such as the sandy beaches of Goa flocked with foreign tourists or the many forts, palaces and other tourist spots such as the Taj Mahal and India’s free and open society. It also serves as an opportunity to project visually the fun and positive side of India, to the gathered Pakistanis, who are constantly fed a diet of anti-India sentiment. No Pakistani listens to Indian patriotic songs and vice versa that blare at the Attari-Wagah border before each flag lowering ceremony. Neither does any side hold the flag of the other country in awe. But many, if not all, Pakistanis would definitely be more inclined to watch Bollywood than listen to their own patriotic songs. The exercise could serve as a psychological operation in addition to lightening the atmosphere. Perhaps the government could take a leaf from an incident dating back to December 1989, when the invading US forces played deafeningly loud heavy metal music all day and night for ten days outside the Vatican embassy in Panama City, where the fugitive Panamian leader Manuel Noreiga had taken refuge. He eventually surrendered on 3 January 1990, after finding the music unbearable to endure. While this presents an interesting case of using soft power as a tool of psychological warfare, India’s soft power can be used to present the attractive side of India to the gathered audience.
In any case, the Indian establishment should maintain its dignity and not engage in the choreographed contempt that defines the flag lowering ceremony. Instead, the BSF should stay professional and poised and carry out its drill correctly and unemotionally, while ignoring the cheers and jeers from the other side. There ought to be no goose steps, high kicking, stomping of shoes or glares by the BSF. Perhaps, at best, BSF men could express professional indifference towards the Pakistani Rangers and the gathered Pakistani audience. After all, the BSF is a serious organisation engaged in guarding the vast land borders with Pakistan and Bangladesh.
Ideally, the BSF should confine itself to simply lowering the flag at the appointed moment in a matter of fact manner, which will mean dispensing with the existing drill and reducing it to just a brief and muted exercise, as is the practice at the border outpost in Hussainiwala, located in Ferozepur district of Punjab. In fact, this is how the ceremony had originally begun in 1959. Perhaps every time tensions rise on both sides, the BSF should reduce the ceremony to a short and curt flag lowering exercise. India has a long, contentious Line of Control and Actual Ground Position Line along Pakistan Occupied Kashmir for it to express its aggression whenever the occasion demands. In contrast, the Attari-Wagah border should be viewed by India as an opportunity to showcase its smart, subtle and classy side before the gathered Pakistani audience and the world.
Dinesh Kumar is a Chandigarh based defence analyst