The absurd goose-step dance of turbaned border guards is finally at an end at Wagah, the Lahore border post with India. It made mockery of an otherwise dignified ceremony of flag-lowering in the evenings. Partisan spectators sat around waiting for this offer of mutual insult on a daily basis and renewed their hatred for each other across the frontier. There were tiers of seats available for people who became addicted to this pantomime of hatred and raised slogans promising the destruction of each other’s country.
Now the border forces of the two countries have decided to abandon this cheap cock-fight “because of knee injuries to the participants”. But not after it had gone on for years and poisoned the minds of an untold number of spectators who went there to see soldiers strutting about in a display of Nazi goose-step that no army in its right mind would have allowed. The two guards marched towards each other most menacingly and then, stopping short within inches of each other, raised their right leg till the boot and chappal nearly touched the nose of the opponent.
Who ordered this childish display of choreographed aggression? Apparently, the local border commander because Wagah remained the only post where this went on. While locals derived visceral enjoyment from it, foreigners pitied the two nations that allowed the farce every sunset. That the government remained silent over it, and the army too took no notice, made it widely believed that it had the sanction from authorities on both sides. The Indian side says it first suggested to their counterpart at the border post to “take it easy”. Whoever took the initiative has earned the gratitude of all civilised people in South Asia.
The reason given by the Indian side is medical. The militiamen just could not go on with the goose-step that Europe had experienced under the Nazis. It was a fascist display of military bravado; but in our imitation of it we forgot that the drill could cripple men for life. Our cheap entertainment has apparently caused suffering to the innocent men who obeyed orders and carried out the daily farce. The savage stomping of the foot and then raising it unnaturally to the face of the opponent was a travesty of the goose-step itself. What the soldiers got was not victory over the rival country but a jolt in the joint that disabled them for normal service.
The silly drill was very symbolic and hardly covered the leadership on both sides of the border with glory. It not only perpetuated war but also showed the border post as a point where people were asked to expect aggression in place of trade and tourism. Peace movements from both sides went to Wagah, every time the drums of war were sounded, to offset the war obsession. They were most often not allowed to meet and returned broken-hearted after seeing the horrible drill. The foreigners who saw this were disgusted and took movies of it to show back home to scare their children of the dangers of war. This ritual was a ritual of dishonour.
Does the abandonment of the drill mean that a new era will dawn? Will this mean that the two sides will behave normally towards each other, like other nations do across their borders? If the ritual is ended forever then it is time for our psychologists to quantify how many civilian minds have been poisoned by it over the years. These figures should be set side-by-side with the number of soldiers who have been crippled by the drill. Two artists from India and Pakistan should be commissioned to create a monument at Wagah showing reflecting this change at an important crossing which is expected to become more important as South Asia develops its trade routes under Saarc.
The distant future in our region is that of peace and not war. Sooner rather than later armed rangers will be replaced by staff that examines traded commodities going to Central Asia in the west and Bangladesh in the east. Perhaps the end of the nightmare of the goose-step drill is actually an augury of that future.
Published in The Express Tribune, November 2nd, 2010.