Saturday, February 09, 2008

A trip to the Wagah Border

Its the closest I ever got to Pakistan. Its the first time in my life that I felt the palpable excitement of Pakistani presence, beyond a cricket field. This was when I went to the Wagah Border on Republic Day this year and to the Golden Temple just hours before getting to the Indo-Pak border.

My first impression on seeing a Pakistani soldier, inches away from the Indian border, was one of toughness.I felt that they were immaculately dressed in dark green army outfits, with sharp noses and incredibly piercing eyes.Their posture in "attention" position, was one of "I am ready to take on the world".Their style of marching was incredibly aggressive, yet classy.I will never forget the moment when I saw this smart soldier march towards the Pakistani flag, make a right turn and slam his foot into Pakistani soil with a thud. I was a few hundred feet away from him, but the reverbrations of that foot slamming the ground was felt quite a distance away! I shudder to think what he would have done had the gates been open!!:)

I also think that the concept of a retreat in possibly one of the most patriotic spots in the world - what with Pakistanis and Indians screaming at the top of their voices with passion for their countries- is a remarkable thing.With practices of a lovely march by the Indian Border Security Force followed by a similar exercise on the Pakistani side, the national anthem on either side of the fence being played one after the other, the opening of the gates for a few minutes where the Indian and Pakistani soldiers meet, the playing of hot Bollywood numbers such as Kajra Re to up the tempo,and with the lowering of flags of both the countries in tandem(& with immense respect) were a treat to watch!The highlight of course, was the fever pitch patriotism on either side of the Wagah Border, what with the few hundred Indians who had assembled into the stadium screaming Jai Hind and Vande Mataram, and the Pakistanis trying to match the decibel levels in the vicinity, if not exceed it. All in all, an immensely patriotic place and one of the most unique places I have ever been to. Would love to go there again!.

The defining moment for me actually came after the retreat, when people on either side of the border were allowed to right up to the gate of the border(see pic) and meet each other, shake hands with each other, speak to each other with the barricade on, and indeed see the other side of the fence up,close and personal. This is allowed for just 15-20 minutes, but it was sight to behold! I also saw many Pakistanis walk along the gate at a far end that did not have a barricade, touching the small fence that divided the 2 countries, and smiling at many Indians.This was a far cry from the acrimony that usually exists on the sporting arena,when the two countries meet or when the political games are played out in Delhi and Islamabad. This was reality on the ground with people meeting each other - I guess this is what politicians mean by 'people-to-people' contact. It was phenomenal to see and I would like to do it again. And maybe one day, even cross the border using the bus that plies between Delhi and Lahore, given that Lahore was just 23 kilometres away from where I was standing on that wonderful January 26 evening!

Of course, there are a few things that I did not like there - such as special seating for women such that they had chairs and benches to sit while we guys were left standing and jostling for space, a VIP seating arrangement for people with "access" to be seated right next to the gate that divides the two countries and the sad planning (on the Indian side at least) in accommodating people. There were tons of folks who could not even sight the retreat in full, and were pretty much seeing the entire 30 minute show through handycams and digital cameras of people around. Anyway, as with many things in life, this needs to be taken with a pinch of salt, I guess, because, the larger picture of patriotic fervour was something else!!

Jai Hind!!