It was in 1991 that I first visited the Attari-Wagah joint check post on the India-Pakistan border. With militancy at its peak in Punjab, visiting the border areas was not high on the agenda of most people but as a first year student in an Amritsar college, I had time on my hands during weekends.
The spectacle was much the same as it is now. Brain shattering footstomping, arrogant glares and some twirling of moustaches. But the piece de resistance, for me, was when the parade got over. The crowd on both sides were allowed to come right up to the gate, which were closed, but one could see across. These days it is not so. And so the 200-odd people from Pakistani side and the 100-odd from India, mostly army personnel and their families, surged forward. And then stood. Silent. Watching each other wide eyed. Not a word was spoken. It was as if both sides were watching a human for the first time. No abuses were traded, no stones thrown. And just like that the brief moment of gazing was over and the BSF and Pak Rangers shooed us away on our respective sides.
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It has been 25 years since and I have been to the border countless times and seen the parade even more times then I would care to remember. It is more or less the same with minor adjustments. But the crowds. Yes, they are much, much larger. And as the advertisement tag line goes, their dil mange more. And BSF obliges. It has built bigger stands, put a drummer in attendance to drum beats in sync with the footstomping Constables, has a mic wielding jawan who hands out the Tricolour to women to run down the road and asks the crowds to shout slogans. In other words, the madness is now institutionalised.
During my last visit to the headquarters of the BSF’s Punjab frontier in Jalandhar, I asked senior BSF officers on the genesis of the parade. None could give a satisfactory answer. They just do not have the details. Who devised these ridiculous gestures? Why was the so-called parade needed in the first place? Why not a normal lowering of flag as per military traditions?
What little I could glean from them was that the border was managed by the Army in the first few years of Independence when all that marked it was a pole in the middle of the road with a few drums. Later, the task was taken over by the Punjab Armed Police till the BSF took it over after it was raised in 1965. The parade itself started sometime unknown and the gestures got refined and degraded over time. Both sides actually practice the moves before putting on the sham display for the tourists from Maharashtra and Gujarat and Odisha and everywhere who feel thrilled to be catching some action against Pakistan.
Do we need this jingoism? In my view, no. There is another such parade, at toned down scale, at Husseiniwala border in Ferozepur, and that too needs to go. There is nothing remotely military about the parade sequence and all it does is reduce the participants to the level of performers in a circus. That is not what border guards should be doing. Let Pakistan Rangers continue it, if they want to. Let them stomp and frown in isolation. Let us not give them what they want.
So about 25 years back I once re-visited the border with a relative who was in government service. It was well before the parade and the atmosphere was relaxed. Sauntering near the gate dividing India and Pakistan, the towering Pak Ranger indulged in small talk with me. Kee naa hai tera (What is your name), kithe parda ain (Where do you study) was followed by Kedi qaum hai teri (What is your nationality). It was a clever attempt to find out if I had Khalistani sympathies. “Ethe Jattan di iko qaum hai, Hindustani,” (Here Jatts have only one nationality, Indian) I told him. He stared back and nodded. Sometimes no footstomping is required to send a message through.