Winter is already being felt in what is one of the coldest regions in India’s plains. It is still dark outside as BSF Assistant Commandant Jaswinder Singh Kang steps out of his quarters at Khasa BSF camp at 6 am and gets into a gypsy. The Wagah Joint Check Post is nearly 20 km away and it takes him almost 20 minutes to get there.
The Retreat Parade at the Wagah border, which Kang commands, is still 10 hours away. But every day, come summer or winter, the preparations begin just after dawn.
Since the November 2 attack on the Pakistani side of the border that targeted visitors returning after watching the Retreat Parade, Kang and his men have a point to prove. The first such attack, that left 60 dead, was meant to send Delhi as much a message as Islamabad, and the BSF men want to underline that they are not cowed.
“We pick our best jawans for the ceremony. While every jawan is best, there are always best among the best,” Kang says, running a finger down a list of names.
Three teams of BSF personnel, each with 13 members, perform the ceremony by turns. At sunset daily, as the flags of India and Pakistan at the border are lowered by either side, the BSF personnel and Pakistan Rangers conduct the parade as crowds cheer. What draws the applause are the aggressive gestures, including stomping, with feet struck to the ground from above shoulder level, and the glowering looks that men from either side exchange. At the same time, it is a synchronised drill, with the BSF and Pakistan Rangers mirroring each other’s gestures.
By 7 am, a morning whistle has brought BSF jawans out of their quarters 15-20 metres from the checkpost onto a ground nearby. For the next half an hour, they warm up with running and exercises, before the rehearsal for the parade starts.
During the 40 minutes of practice, Kang says, the focus is on gestures, particularly the stomping. The idea is not to be aggressive though, says the 46-year-old BSF Assistant Commandant. “It is to make the ceremony impressive.”
BSF Constable Anupam Yadav, who has been a part of the Retreat for over three years now, is a bundle of nerves. Practising his stomping, the 34-year-old says, “There is always the risk of the headgear getting dislodged as one raises the foot to difficult angles and then brings it down to hit the ground. We have to be extra careful. Any mistake means embarrassment before a huge crowd and a reprimand from seniors.”
In the striking ceremonial uniform of bright red, blue and yellow, the headgear is especially unique. BSF DIG R P S Jaswal says the uniform has been the same for years.
Yadav is one of the names Kang picks for the evening drill today. Yadav is relieved when he realises he will be on alongside Yogender Singh, 42. Singh, a BSF Head Constable, has been doing the Retreat for five years now and will be carrying the Tricolour back after it has been lowered. Singh is a calming influence on his team. “It feels so great to be a part of the drill,” he says.
There is no interaction or exchange of pleasantries between the Indian and Pakistani sides, though, at some moments, BSF personnel and Pakistan Rangers are separated by as little as a foot. Says BSF DIG M F Farooqui, “The only interaction is if there is a flag meeting on some issue, which is held after obtaining permission from higher authorities.”
After the morning practice, the men head back to their quarters for breakfast. The menu today is palak parantha, bananas and tea. The food is cooked in a kitchen at the site, just 30 metres from the Indian border gate.
At 9 am, the BSF personnel are back at the Joint Check Post for their other duty of keeping an eye on the travellers crossing over by foot from Pakistan, and guarding the post.
Around 1 pm, they head for lunch, which is mostly dal, chapaatis, rice, a sabzi and curd. After eating, they take a short break. They have to report back to work by 3 pm, an hour before the visitors start arriving at the pavilion for the parade.
Singh now does a final run-through with his men of their duties. While the Retreat Parade team conducts the ceremony to the sound of blaring patriotic songs, the others will have to manage the crowds and shepherd VIPs to a special enclosure.
BSF Constable G K Kaushik, 33, says people often approach them to get clicked with them. “We feel special when people jostle for our photos,” he smiles. Kaushik is from a village in Haryana.
Constable Yadav recalls that he was at the VIP traffic gate and a majority of the spectators had left the pavilion when the blast occurred on the Pakistani side on November 2. “Initially we thought a tyre had burst. Then we got information from the Pakistani side that it was a cylinder blast. Soon it emerged that it was a fidayeen attack.”
Yadav, who belongs to Bharolia village in Mainpuri district of Uttar Pradesh, spent two years in Srinagar on an earlier posting, and realises the implications of the attack. “If a bomber can reach within 400 metres of the International Border, it means the security barriers on the Pakistani side were inadequate. We all have to be extra alert,” says Yadav.
Like Yadav, Yogender Singh too was earlier posted in Kashmir for two years. Hailing from Sitapur village in Rajasthan’s Karauli district, he says this assignment is “different” and he feels proud of what he does.
Around 5 pm, the countdown to the Retreat begins. After giving the audience a brief introduction on the history of the Wagah Joint Check Post and the ceremony, Kang marches towards the Indian gate on the border, stopping 10 ft short of it. Deepak, 25, a BSF sub-inspector, marches up to him and seeks permission to begin the parade.
The respective gates are then opened by both sides, with Deepak and his counterpart on the other side marching towards each other and shaking hands on the International Border.
That’s the sign of the beginning of the ceremony, with personnel from the two sides marching towards the gates, staring at each other menacingly, striking their chests forcefully with fists, and marching away. It ends with the two sides bringing down the flags of the countries, and carrying them back.
Soon after that, the music starts dying, the crowds start dispersing with a loud chatter, and in the quiet of their quarters, Kang and his men let out a sigh of relief.
Dark falls and quickly, and while some settle before TV sets to relax, for the others, the day is not over. By rotation, they man the border at night.