AMRITSAR – I feel as if I am at a sporting match. Crowds have gathered on either side and the air is charged with claps and cheers. This atmosphere makes sense, as I am attending a contest of two teams.
I had come to see the closing of the Wagah Border between India and Pakistan that takes place every day at sunset. The Khaki-clad security forces represented the Indian side, and the Pakistani soldiers stood in black. It is the most vibrant, loud, and grotesque display of nationalism that one can ever imagine.
The soldiers – 7 foot men designed to out-do their counterpart, in a region where the average male in 5 feet 5 inches – scream, stomp and strut for a frantic audience. The crowd goes wild as jingoistic slogans are blared from a loud speaker. School children perform carefully choreographed dances depicting Hindustani bravery. People chant, flex their muscles and jeer at the soldiers across the border.
The Pakistani side has its very own simultaneous spectacle. Thousands screaming “La illa ha illa la” and a loud speaker proclaiming that Kashmir will never belong to India.
The ceremony I was witnessing highlighted more similarities between the two sides than differences. The people shouting “Hindustan Zindabad! Pakistan Murdabad! (Long live India! Death to Pakistan!) Shared the same culture, custom, color, creed, caste, cuisine, costume, and consonant as the ones hurling the same lines (but replacing India with Pakistan) on the other side. They even insulted each others’ sisters and mothers using the same curse words. It was as if they were all screaming into a mirror.
Before I entered the stadium, I allowed a young boy to paint an image of the Indian flag on my hand. As I looked down at my hand I felt a sense of shame and sorrow at the hatred shown by people under the guise of celebration.
A lot of sizzle for no steak. The flow of people back and forth from the border is marginal. Each side is aggressively indifferent to the internal affairs of the other. Their shared history seen as a burden. Several official and unofficial wars, all stemming from the events of 1947, when one nation become two. A superficially sketched border that forever remains a gaping wound, despite being nursed every day at sunset by the colorful bandages of the Wagah border ceremony.
The end of World War II saw Britain battered and bruised and no longer able to hold onto her colonies. Aiding this rush for decolonization was the non-violent resistance movement in India, led by Mahatma Gandhi. Sadly this movement lost its way, morphing into a push for territorial separation based on religious grounds. The push was lead by Muslim League leader Muhammad Ali Jinnah, who feared a Hindu-majority government.
That year the last British viceroy of India, Lord Mountbatten, set a deadline for independence. In July, British lawyer Cyril Radcliffe arrived in India with a draft that divided the Hindu lands from the Muslim ones. Radcliffe was said to be a brilliant lawyer, but the man had no border-making authority, nor had he ever been to India – flaws that were seen as advantages at the time due to so-called ‘impartiality’.
Even if the border had not been so hastily drawn, it’s hard to imagine a scenario where a religious-based border line, cutting through homogenous lands, would not end in chaos and violence. But the then circumstances – the rush for decolonization and the internal political dynamics of India – caused the partition. Following the final release of the border scheme, violence escalated exponentially. In the end, ethnic cleansing killed over 1 million people and forced over 12 million to migrate from one side of the boarder to the other. Radcliffe was said to have been so appalled by the consequences that he destroyed all his papers and refused any payment for his services.
Over six decades after the ‘divorce’ of India and Pakistan, the border remains a gaping wound of separation – one forever entrenched into the psyche of two nations. And there I was, witnessing this symbolic phenomenon in all its glory. The apparent objective – to lower the flags before sunset. But as the display went on, the real objective became clear: to act as an outlet, right here on the geopolitical stage, for the deep hostility and mutual resentment between India and Pakistan. But as an unintended consequence, the ceremony instead exposed the mutual resemblance.