Why is the Wagah border ceremony a competition of nationalism?

Published: May 17, 2018

While some may argue this should be passed off as mere entertainment, it is actually embedding and rekindling deep-seated prejudice and hatred.

It has been 70 years since India and Pakistan emerged from a single, coherent geographical unit as two sovereign nations, and both states do their best to remember and reaffirm this. Every day at around 4:30pm, the Wagah border prepares for a unique ceremony, wherein the soldiers stationed at and near the border gates on both sides re-state the identity of India and Pakistan as sovereign nations, while their people cheer for them.

As the dusk sets in, it is time to lower their respective flags, but both countries do so by giving a warning to each other. The gates open, and soldiers from both sides walk up to each other fiercely and compete in showing off their respective physical strength. They lift their legs as high as they can, all the while giving the other their fiercest look. This physical strength and aggressiveness is meant to symbolise the strength of the nation, and warn the other state.

They eventually shake hands and go back to their respective gates. While doing so, a smile may dash across their faces, like a silver lining in the dark. The people on both sides cheer at this moment as well.

The Wagah border ceremony is quite simply a site of nationalism. Particularly in India, a trip to Amritsar will tend to involve a visit to witness the border ceremony. Recently, there was also a competition between the two nations on planting the tallest flag at the border. Unfortunately, neither wind nor nature supported them in this endeavour.

The ceremony also accommodates the audience as being more than just mere spectators. Even before the ceremony involving the soldiers begins, songs of patriotism are played on both sides while onlookers, especially children, perform in support. They sing and dance along to match the spirit of the gathering.

I remember the time I attended the ceremony on the Indian side; there was a race involving children running with the Indian flag, so they could contribute to the display of patriotism around them. I also once heard someone saying his friend went to the Wagah border to show his deshbhakti (patriotism).

But is this really patriotism, or love for one’s own country? After all, the ceremony is inherently about instilling hatred for the other side. Seventy years on, we have continued to define ourselves and our nationalism only in opposition to the other, as profoundly captured by this daily ceremony. Every day, hundreds of Indians and Pakistanis are embedded with an aggressive nationalism, feelings of hostility, competition and hatred, all in the name of patriotism.

On the other hand, it is interesting that this site is also utilised to address one’s curiosity to see not only the other side, but also the people belonging to the other side.

The first time I went to the Wagah border was as an undergraduate student. At that time, I was not involved with any cross-border peacebuilding effort. All I had with me were inherited memories and ideas that painted Pakistan as an opposing and different land, but I was also curious. I felt excited when I saw the seats on the “other side” getting filled. Throughout the ceremony, my focus was on capturing as much as I could of the land beyond the gates.

Aaghaz-e-Dosti, a cross-border peace initiative, has also documented the story of two friends, one from India and the other from Pakistan, who came to this ceremony to finally see each other in person. They had co-ordinated earlier and could spot and wave at each other in the crowd. In fact, they claim they were only a few feet away from each other.

As a peace activist working on both sides, while I respect national monuments and sites, I do not think such aggression and hostility should be shown in this ceremony. Hours before this ceremony, the same site is used as one of the official passages for people to enter the other country. Given that it is quite literally a passage for peace and friendship, it is very ironic all that is lost once the ceremony itself begins.

More importantly, this site is also a reminder of what we choose not to recognise along with our independence and emergence as separate nations. Our Partition came at a heavy human cost, and millions of people were displaced. On both sides, people were killed, raped, lost, or separated from their families entirely. While at the time there may have been no such border gates, the space functioned as a passageway for migrants. Today, it continues to mark those memories. It is due to this reason that for many, especially the refugees and their children, the passage to Pakistan through the Wagah border has a very different meaning altogether.

We know the differences that led to India and Pakistan did not stop at the Partition; the two sovereigns have continued to hate each other. But for our own development, we need to come out of this cycle of violence. For our own future, we must challenge this thinking, and for this, we must revamp the ceremony. As pointed out earlier, the ceremony glorifies violence and hostility. While some may argue this should be passed off as mere entertainment, it is actually embedding and rekindling deep-seated prejudice and hatred.

We must also spare this space because it is the least we can do to remember the people lost in the fire of hatred. We can keep the same ceremony, but alter it to emphasise love instead of hate.

After all, why can’t this ceremony be used for peacebuilding? Even otherwise, these gates are opened on festivals when soldiers exchange flowers and sweets, so why not every day? Every day, we can have the soldiers of both sides greet each other, hug each other or shake hands. This does not diminish our administrative borders in any way. We can go to the ceremony and wave at the other side, cheer for each other, play songs of peace and perform together, even while the gates remain closed. With peace, there can be endless possibilities, and each one will be beautiful.

Even if this is done, the Wagah border will continue to be a site of nationalism – the only difference being we will be changing the definition of nationalism itself.

We need to be two nations that respect each other. We were one land, one people before the Partition, so why can’t we live in peace now? And how are we ever to become true peace-loving countries if the performance of our nationalism relies on aggression and hostility?

We cannot undo the past, but we can come out of the cycle of hatred which has served us no purpose, and has only meant the loss of lives, depletion of our economies, and the deprivation of basic amenities. Together, we can use this ceremony to sow seeds of peace and of friendship, for a better tomorrow.


Devika Mittal

The author is pursuing a Ph.D in Sociology from the Delhi School of Economics. She is the Convener - India of Aaghaz-e-Dosti, an Indo-Pak Friendship initiative. She Tweets @devikasmittal (twitter.com/devikasmittal)

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • Sarfraz Bokhari

    I would love to see that happen but unfortunately since the division of subcontinent Kashmir problem lingered on and is still lingering.Recommend

  • Manjit Sahota

    A good thought. Nothing is gained by this show of arrogance and muscle. It was not always like this during the rest of the day. I remember my only visit to Wagah in 1967 in the after noon along with a friend and a high official from Amritsar telephone department. We were students of Engineering at that time. There was a lot of cordiality between the armed officers from each side. The senior officer from Pakistani side was a very graceful person. He kindly allowed us to walk for about 50 metres inside the Pakistani side before politely asking us to return to Indian side of the border. To this day, I remember his gesture of kindness and my only visit to Pakistan.Recommend

  • Fahad Yousuf

    Exactly… Your thinking is very much similar to me. We both have in-depth roots of trolling against each other for no reason. Rightly so, war doesn’t give anything to us. A mother raises her child with all the difficulties and pains after a hard-work of many years and investing lots and lots of time and money on the child. Yet a bullet is enough to undo all her hard-work and dedication. The mother feelings are the same. Secondly, our patriotism depends just on our birth? If I was born 10 km to the west of Wagah, my sole life purpose is to defend Pakistan. Lets say if I was born 10 km to the east, my sole purpose would be to defend India. So we are not born by choice, why troll the other one, if we might be easily in the other’s place.

    Secondly, religion has nothing to do with this division. There are many Muslims serving and giving their lives to Indian cause and similarly there are many Hindus and Sikhs doing the same for Pakistan.

    So, I think we must respect, love and help each other and share the happiness and sorrows together.Recommend

  • Patwari

    They have similar ceremonies (at borders, not exactly like these, though)
    It just pure entertainment. Nothing devious. Nice entertainment.

  • DesiMunda

    I’m a 67 retired professional living in the US, nurtured by Muslim parents of Pakistan nationalism in Kenya during my birth to youth, with a short stunt of education in Pakistan, have come to Pakistan repeatedly during the past 40 yrs, but like before, I had a lifelong desire to attend the pageantry of “Wagah nationalism”. This past November, I had this dream come true. Where I’ve never had malice for India or Indians, this attendance invoked a volcanic sense of patriotism after watching and listening to the display of love of the people for their country, rarely seen in the west. All for the sense of liberty and freedom that could not be doubled even in the US who finds every opportunity to display their sense of “liberty and freedom” for having stolen land from the Native Indians and Spanish Mexicans, I think this display of pride should not only continue but grandiosed for those who forget how this land, both India & Pakistan, were liberated from the British tyranny. As a matter of fact, politicians should have roll-call of mandatory attendance at this show, to remind them that they need to celebrate their election to serve their respective country, not fleece it with their corruption and also give free-will to the citizenry to hold them accountable right here, as a gesture of loyalty to the country and not to their elected office. Whilst the respective citizens flaunt and enjoy their love, loyalty and patriotism for their country, don’t hate the other; hug, embrace the common denominator that gave them this privilegeRecommend

  • Saad

    I agree. This is an absurd display of hostility and even from an entertainment standpoint is a cheap display of bravado. It needs to be done away with. There was a report sometime last year that the soldiers involved on both sides are experiencing joint-related issues because of the way these ceremonies are performed. Quite frankly, it is a stupid display of arrogance from both sides.Recommend

  • Parvez

    The so called ceremony has been reduced to ‘ entertainment ‘. Many, many years ago when I went to Wagha to watch the lowering of the flags….the ceremony was simple, with commands called out with only the beautiful sound of the bugle. It was moving and in keeping with the atmosphere.
    Today much has changed and so also has this….and I for one am sad.Recommend

  • Neighborly love

    It is like holding a cockfight every day to decide which side is stronger. It is done to add fuel to the fire of hatred.Recommend

  • Sane

    What I see this is not entertainment. This gives energy and revitalize our resolve to fight and save our motherland. This is pure display of patriotism.Recommend

  • Kind Balee

    I think this should be stopped immediately.Recommend

  • Rajendra Kumar

    Expecting something more normal and creative out of these two nations is a bit too much. I have suggested many times that this ceremony should be stopped and something more creative and useful activity should be started. We can have a circular stadium , half in India and half in Pakistan at wagah border. we can have games and cultural programs there. Also we can have music programs there. One can have even joint exhibitions..possibilities are endless. However, I don’t see vision in the leaders of these two nations.Recommend