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Monday, October 18, 2021

At Attari border ceremony, a familiar fervour returns, with fewer viewers

The only difference: Not everyone who has lined up outside can get in now. While the BSF has resumed public viewing of its daily Beating the Retreat parade this weekend (after it shut in March 2020), only 300 people are allowed each day. Which leaves thousands assembled outside disappointed.

Written by Divya A | Amritsar, Attari Border |
Updated: September 21, 2021 7:07:10 am
Beating the Retreat ceremony takes place Monday before a curtailed audience. (Express photo by Rana Simranjit Singh)

Approaching the Attari-Wagah Joint Check Post, a rush of familiar sights and sounds, missing over the last 18 months, greets a visitor. People lined up outside barricades, honking cars, food kiosks, and stalls selling fatigues, tricoloured caps and flags. “Only 20 rupees,” says a young boy painting the tricolour on visitors’ hands and cheeks. “We are back after a long time, we have waited for this day.”

The only difference: Not everyone who has lined up outside can get in now. While the Border Security Force (BSF) has resumed public viewing of its daily Beating the Retreat parade this weekend (after it shut in March 2020 in the wake of the pandemic), only 300 people are allowed each day. Which leaves thousands assembled outside disappointed.

The 25-minute coordinated parade on both sides, which would attract 25,000 spectators every evening on the Indian side at Attari, had been on such a prolonged hiatus for the first time ever since it started in 1959. A BSF official says: “Till the time there are Covid-19 restrictions, we are allowing a limited number of people on a first-come-first-serve basis.” But the visitors also have to first procure passes from the BSF headquarters at Khasa, a few kilometres short of Attari.

“There are no specific orders for resuming the ceremony. We have forwarded to the BSF the general SOPs capping outdoor gatherings at 300,” says an official from the district administration. The retreat is held at 5.30 pm every day. A special window has been opened at the BSF office from where visitors can get the passes. A notice board is placed near it, carrying detailed information on Covid-19 guidelines to be followed.

On the stands, most people wear masks — and their deshbhakti on their sleeves. A mask-wearing BSF jawan, who emcees the exercise, shouts: ‘Bharat Mata Ki…”, and an enthusiastic crowd responds, “Jai”. Each time he twists his moustache and gestures towards the other side, someone in the crowd says, “Hindustan Zindabad.” People pull their masks down every now and then to take selfies.

The “Hindustan Zindabad” is met with a “Pakistan Zindabad” from the other side. Pakistan never closed their side to visitors to witness the retreat. On the Indian side, four BSF jawans would undertake the customary flag-down parade every sunset. From Saturday onwards, BSF restarted the full parade — with loud gestures, mics, orchestra and the works, led by members of its women contingent.

As the parade progresses, visitors keep trickling in. Says a BSF official: “Even though we can allow only 300 people at the moment, so many tourists who have come to Amritsar for the first time from across India, keep requesting us to let them watch it just for a few seconds. Although we feel bad for them, we can’t relent.”

He adds, however, that they are expecting “housefull crowds and normal protocol to resume within the next week”.

“Wagah is to Amritsar what Taj Mahal is to Agra,” says an elderly tourist from Kolkata, who was visiting the city for the first time, but he couldn’t get inside for the Retreat. Others who could, returned overjoyed, taking selfies, heady with patriotic fervour, singing “Sabse Aage Honge Hindustani”.

Hotels in the city have also recorded a 20 per cent rise in tourists over the weekend, when the Attari-Wagah parade reopened. Within 22 days of Jallianwala Bagh reopening, this has given another booster shot to the tourism-related economy in the city. A district tourism department official said they get 20-25 calls everyday enquiring about the Wagah parade.

Outside Attari-Wagah, life is slowly stirring into action. Auto-stands are full, a car park is full, and the young boy making tricolour paintings is walking with a renewed vigour, using his newly earned 20 rupees to buy a soft drink.

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