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Patriotism goes pop: In Wagah

If politicians do it, the army does it better.

As the evening warms up

Hindi film songs that were paeans to patriots and patriotism bellowed out from half a dozen loud speakers. Tens of thousands swayed, sang, lip synced and grew goose-bumps in unison. The more patriotic lot, actually those who were seated in the front row, sprang up in obeisance to some alien power that possessed them and shuddered off some very violent moves. The Wagah Dance. A stern-looking soldier of Hulk proportions, moustache dangling like a sword, a sheathed dagger that actually upped the sex ante, came with an unhurried menace towards these dancing patriots and asked them to return to their seats which they could find no more. But another group had sprung up in obeisance to the alien power and there was some space. It is a looped sequence. As dusk approaches, everyone had their eyes trained towards the border for the retreat ceremony, or ‘lowering of the flags’ as it is more commonly known.

I am in Wagah, the India border with Pakistan. This could probably be the only tourist destination which, without any advertisement, attracts millions every year. Then of course, you really cannot advertise ‘Come and see Indian and Pakistani soldiers getting close to blows, well almost.’ Or maybe a tad tamely, ‘You are not a true Indian till you have danced in Wagah.’ Still, propaganda to the same effect has been done by writers like Michael Palin who called the ceremony a display of ‘carefully choreographed contempt’. Mike is right. Or rather, he was.

The Wagah Dance

Starting at 6 in the morning from Delhi, the drive itself is a splendid high – you are travelling on the well-kept NH – 1 most part of the journey, you can average a 100 kph. Panipat, Karnal and Pipli whizzes by in slightly exaggerated blurs even before the sun has warmed up for the day. The golden hued wheat fields swaying unhindered in a gentle wind is a welcome respite from seeing too much of fine earth sacrificed for industrial zones and self-styled education hubs or luxury landmarks. Hey city slicker, roll down your windows and allow the wind laden with fragrances from the farm waft over you; will do you a world of good after all the gasoline air that has rutted your lungs. However, if you still pine for industry, there is Ambala coming up. There is always that odd truck or tractor that propels towards you in the wrong direction announcing your arrival in Ambala. Most of the time at the sharpest of the curves, it takes more good luck than skill to avoid a messy head on. All of you see of this Joe Black through the rear view are chequered, fluttering scarves bobbing to some local ditty screeching out of specially fitted speakers. Covering 500 km you reach Amritsar in time for lunch. After a brief rest I was off to the Wagah border, now just 30 km away.

Chak de, chak de India…

Plays out to a capacity crowd

The army DJ was doing a brilliant job in churning out the right notes. The crowd went berserk at every number. If ever the army is short on personnel, enlisting should be introduced as part of the ceremony here. A couple of British girls who were watching the proceedings quite detachedly at the beginning now took the stage and redefined bhangra in a very groovy way. Many men from the crowd left their girlfriends, wives or mothers and appointed themselves Davar to the novices. In the midst of all this chaos a man in his 70s, wearing khadi and a Gandhi cap just walked about flying a huge flag on a long flagstaff. He would just march from one end to the other waving the heavy flag with some difficulty; strangely even the army men in charge of crowd discipline gave him a free walk. But his counterpart across the border was everything he was not: screaming at every run he made and each time as he passed the border gate, he would stand for a brief while and scream towards the raucous audience on this side. He would be escorted away by a Pakistani Ranger manning their side of the border, only to return five minutes later. However, the old screamer was always met with roars of approval from the Indian side; guess patriotism in any colour found fervour here.

Who is the well, fittest

The ‘flags lowering ceremony’ began as a joint military exercise between the Border Security Force and Pakistani Rangers in 1959. The ceremony begins towards sun set every day and lasts for about 45 minutes at the end of which both the countries’ flags were carefully folded and marched away for the night with great reverence to an army band pounding away. The choreography indeed looked like the brief was ‘instil fear in the enemy’; later on probably a new brief was added – ‘pump up the audience.’ So there are legs that are kicked way above heads, gestures with the fist which I thought were copyrights of WWE, snarls that originate from somewhere deep down taut stomachs, gurgling up coating itself with bile and spewed out with a lot of spite. I loved the show. I mean, if there was a counter with a poster pointing ‘Mother India needs you’ I would give my email for details. Since there wasn’t, I did the next best thing I could. Back in the hotel in Amritsar where I was staying, I tried to kick my leg high over my head and heard something crack. The shout that was intended to be an angry snarl came out as a painful groan.

Boys, I miss those days

But recent visitors to the Wagah ceremony will not have to put with such pain. A joint decision between the two sides had been taken to tone down the belligerent moves and noises. One of my favourite fist gestures – which went like ‘up yours’ – was to be replaced with handshakes. But Pakistani Rangers refused to change their head-high kicks – they said it was actually ‘stretching’ – and hence a display of fitness.

Not all is lost.

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