Wagah-Attari Border: Dancing with the Frenemy in No Man’s Land

Wagah Attari Amritsar Punjab India April,05,2014:  flag ceremony by Border Security Force guards at India-Pakistan border, Wagah, Attari,Amritsar, Punjab,India,Asia

The Wagah-Attari border ceremony is both a bridge and barrier between the two nation-states – India and Pakistan. Every day before sundown, Pakistani Rangers and India’s Border Force perform a symbolic military shootout to a stadium full of spectators. The border ceremony is an all-consuming affair with spectators fervently cheering on their respective military representatives who put on a free choreographed musical show. With 10,000 visitors a day – sometimes 40,000 on special occasions – this is a highly-charged atmospheric event for locals and tourists alike. Only 30 minutes away from Pakistan’s cultural capital, Lahore, this spectacular exchange takes place on one of the only two joint checkpoints on the 3000 km border separating the conjoined twins – India and Pakistan. The physical architecture of the border and the border ceremony itself reveals the complex and unique character of India-Pakistan relations. Therein lies multiple identities of brotherhood, animosity, socio-cultural norms, a site of enterprise and tourism.

A Political Theatre Piece

The border ceremony is also referred to as the ‘beating retreat’ which is a military ceremony used as a means for patrolling units to withdraw but this custom does the exact opposite. This highly choreographed piece requires coordination and respect which underlines how the border ceremony is a piece of political theatre and performative nationalism. There is doublespeak of constantly stoking tension through movements and publicly playing to their respective home crowds while privately collaborating behind the scenes to perfect this image. This choreographed response of a border ceremony is a continuous production that has remained largely unchanged since 1959 to reinforce the narrative of hostility towards the other.

A decades-old feud is still alive today as the border ceremony represents the current political relationship between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. A spectacle of power is exhibited through goose steps and colourful costumes. The plumes on their head add height as well as raised arms and puffed-out chests to intimidate the other. The border ceremony reflects each nation state’s thinking. This unique relationship of being foes and friends stems from a shared culture and language along with a shared bloody history. Pakistan needs India as much as India needs Pakistan to create its emboldened identity and justify the clear-cut dividing lines imposed by Radcliffe in 1947.

Changing Spaces and the Role of the Audience

Before the renowned border ceremony became a tradition, the border was previously a site of commemoration where visitors would pay their respects with flowers to those who died as well as remember the once shared space of the home. The role of visitors has changed as this border was an emotive place that has now transformed into a patriotic face-off ritual. The physical border was once more permeable, as one could once walk across the border, but this has now been replaced by a more structured formal airport-like procedure instead. While Pakistan was created 74 years ago, the strong feeling of partition is preserved through this border ceremony. While time should heal deep wounds, the multi-generation onlookers reassert their patriotism through participating in the ceremony.

A Site of Enterprise

The border is a shared site of enterprise whereby both are profiting off the friendly animosity dynamic. In economic terms, the border brings all sorts of paraphernalia – garment, tattoo, flag and juice vendors from their respective sides as well as people from surrounding villages who are also employed at the border. The border ceremony is their site of business, which has led to labourers moving to other towns in Punjab – and even to Delhi – for alternative sources of income due to the impact of Covid-19. Overlooking both border flags from the entrance, a rare example of building a friendship is Aman Jaspal’s restaurant, ‘Sarhad’. A reminder of their shared history and culinary delights, favourite foods from both states are served in a space that combines Pakistani truck art and geometrical patterns from Amritsar Temple. The border provides an opportunity for microbusinesses to sell goods and services which even includes school children having a go at selling knick-knacks.

A microcosm of India-Pakistan relations, the border ceremony is a structured assembly of state differences. Wagah-Attari is not a site of cross-border exchanges. It is rare that Pakistani and Indian citizens cross the border for reasons other than economic ties. The main exchange within the border is situated in the context of a military performance. The border ceremony provides tourists with a glimpse of the antagonistic relationship of camaraderie and enmity. A synchronised spectacle of choreographed steps and visuals of costume simultaneously evokes respect for the other as well as aggression through songs and symbolic architecture. The border is a continuous theatre piece where both the military actors and spectators are upholding the expectations and traditions of their individual states. Will the future generation of Pakistanis and Indians continue to uphold this divisive symbol of performative nationalism? Both sides should lean more into coordinating their own traditions when they recognise that they actually resemble the other more than they think. According to William Blake, it is easier to forgive an enemy than to forgive a friend. Family feuds can only last so long.

Zahra Beg is a postgraduate student studying Violence, Conflict & Development at SOAS and a Junior Public Affairs & Policy Associate working for The Advocacy Team.

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