Celebrations in Wagah
An atmosphere of enthusiasm and festivity reigned as almost seventy thousand people listened to a group performing Sufi, Punjabi folk and classical music and songs. It was night of 14-15 August 2010, a date THAT is etched in the collective memory of the people of India and Pakistan. Fourteenth August, 1947 marks the birth of Pakistan and partition of colonial India into two nation-states – India and Pakistan. On the midnight of 14-15 August in 1947 India was declared independent from over two centuries of British colonial rule. The venue was about three kilometers away from the Attari border between India and Pakistan. Fifty delegates from Pakistan joined the Indians. Occasionally slogans like Hindustan Pakistan Zindabad (Long live India Pakistan) rent the air. The festivities underway were the joint celebration of the independence days of the two neighbouring states.
Usually the Wagah border is also famous for its retreat ceremony each evening when the flags of the two countries are lowered and the gates closed. The ceremony attracts thousands of visitors on both sides daily. In fact, for most visitors to Amritsar the ceremony is a must on their itinerary. To accommodate such enthusiasts both countries have constructed stadiums on their respective side. The Indian one can accommodate around 7,000 people and on most evenings it is full. Patriotic and a trifle jingoistic slogans like Hindustan Zindabad (long live India) and Pakistan Zindabad (long live Pakistan) rent the air on either side and the entire atmosphere is usually a nationalistically charged one. Patriotic songs are sung and played and peddlers selling cheap VSDs and DVDs on both sides make brisk business. Even the border security forces on both sides, who often chat during the day, turn reclusive and hostile to each other in the evenings during the retreat. There have been voices in both India and Pakistan calling for a less belligerent retreat ceremony each day, something that can further the cause of peace between the two sides.
However, that night the place had turned into an island of camaraderie, celebration, goodwill and joy. For the last 16 years veteran journalist Kuldip Nayar along with a team of dedicated activists from Amritsar has been organizing these joint celebration with people mentally and emotionally tired of the conflicting relationship the two neighbours have been locked in since their birth. When the initiative had just been launched only a small group had turned up, it has now increased to a few hundreds. At mid-night about 50 of us, including Kuldip Nayar, renowned film-maker Mahesh Bhatt, Aitzaz Ahsan (leader of lawyers’ movement of Pakistan), Iqbal Haider (former Law minister of Pakistan), and Karamat Ali, longtime labour activist from Pakistan went right to the Attari border, which was gaily festooned and lighted on both sides. Journalists aired live programmes from there. Pakistani journalists, under the banner of South Asian Free Media Association (SAFMA), also made their way there. We all expected Pakistani peace and civil society members to assemble on their side of the border to join in the celebrations. (A no man’s land of xxxxx kms separates the Indian and Pakistani borders.) Surprisingly, nobody turned up on the other side. Later on we got to know that the permission granted to our Pakistani counterparts to assemble at the Wagah border had been withdrawn a day earlier. A little miffed at this turn of events, we lit candles for both our people and celebrated the independence day of both the countries.
The event attracted great media attention and the city of Amritsar and surrounding areas turned into brightly lit havens of festivity. Apart from other things, the Punjabi language, spoken on either side of the border is a great binding factor between the residents on both sides. The following day a host of events was organized to mark the occasion. Plays were performed and a seminar on Indo-Pakistan relations was held in Amritsar. Speakers from both India and Pakistan emphasized on the importance and necessity of peace between India and Pakistan. All demanded resumption of the composite dialogue that had been underway before the November terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008 caused it to be suspended. A team of Aman Ke Badhte Kadam (The Ongoing March of Peace), who had started their peace journey in a bus to Pakistan from Mumbai also joined in the activities in Amritsar.
The borderlands had been transformed for a day and a night at least into a zone of camaraderie and goodwill among Indians and Pakistanis. Peace, then, is a possibility …even if often elusive.