Backpacking Through North India–1: Attari-Wagah Border
Recently I went backpacking solo up north, here’s part 1 of the series of my travelogue.
Punjab, the land of five rivers. Some of them might have dried up but Punjab still is the most fertile land in India, thanks to the extensive canal network developed by the British. This also made Punjab the bone of contention between India and Pakistan during the partition. You can see the beauty of this land even before you’ve landed. Up from the air, minutes before landing at Amritsar, all I could see was lush green fields till where my eye could reach, the irrigation channels and of course, the distant snow-capped mountains of the Himalayan range. That’s how Punjab makes you fall in love with it at the first sight. Amidst colorful turbans and a sweet language, I commenced my Punjab expedition.
My trip commenced from Amritsar, 2nd largest city of the state and closest urban dwelling to Pakistani border. The main reason for including Amritsar in my itinerary was to watch the Retreat Ceremony at Wagah border, which is just about 32 Kms from the city on its outskirts.
For the first time I set foot on the soil of Punjab that afternoon when I landed at Amritsar on the eve of Indian Republic Day. First thing I did after dumping my rucksack at the hotel was to head to the border. One can reach the border in shared jeeps which ply from outside the Golden Temple, the way towards the border from the city was once a part of the Hippie Trail, and it’s surrounded on both sides by beautiful lustrous fields. This land, as I mentioned, is considered as India’s most fertile land. Also as one moves towards the border, one can listen to Lahore’s FM stations without static. Here on an Amritsar station you have playing Sahotas Brothers ‘Teri Meri Gal Ban Gayi’ and on a Lahore counterpart, Saieen Zahoor’s ‘Allah Hoo’.
The lustrous fields on the way to Wagah Border from Amritsar.
Notice the little kid driving the tractor.
Sad that Lahore being mere 23 Kms away, one can’t visit the city because of the imaginary line that divides the two countries.
The two days I was at Amritsar, I went to the border on both. Being there is a hair raising experience. Little kids all dressed up perform on patriotic numbers such as Lata Mangeshkar’s Vande Mataram, Yeh Desh Hai Veer Jawaanon Ka etc. before the actual flag lowering ceremony commences. Being there can bring out the feeling of patriotism in a cold person like me too. The pomp and piety may seem pointless but it’s a distinctive, long running tradition and what fun it is. Here we shout ‘Hindustan Zindabad’ and ‘Vande Mataram’, there they respond by ‘Pakistan Zindabad’ and ‘La ilaha illallah’ (though some douchebags on Indian side shout Pakistan Murdabad); here we play ‘Jai Ho’ and there they play ‘Dil Dil Pakistan’. It’s basically where the two countries are displaying their might in a mild manner without any accompanying taboos. It all seems so innocuous considering the long standing enmity between the two countries.
The place gets this crowded on weekends.
The kids performing before the flag lowering exercise commences.
The exercise then takes form of a dance fest where only women are allowed to come down on the boulevard and dance on Bollywood numbers.
This old man was enthusiastically waiving the flag throughout the duration of the exercise.
The Indian BSF start off the ceremony with two women soldiers parading towards the gate and doing the clichéd foot thumping act amidst the cheers of the crowd. This is unique on the Indian side because the Pakistani counterpart Sutlej Rangers employs no women for this act. Then begins the actual flag lowering ceremony where BSF soldiers in funny headgears do a disciplined parade towards the gate, slump it open, likewise on the Pakistani side, do the same foot thumping, groin crunching act, shake hands with the corresponding soldier from the Sutlej Rangers, lower the flag, fold it respectfully and shut the gate close with a bang.
This is as close we are allowed to come near the gate after being stopped short by BSF soldiers, though, as it can be seen, on the Pakistani side, people are allowed to come to the level of their gate. The BSF folks seemed to frown when I was waiving to the people across the border. It’s sad, the turn that history has taken, and the politics, because of which the people of the two countries can’t mingle with each other despite the evident curiosity.
A glimpse of the neighbor’s land beyond.
And that’s Pakistan, so close yet so far away. The gate adorned by the picture of Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the way India has Gandhi on its gate.
This is the welcome message one gets when entering the Indian territory from Pakistan. To me it seems like India’s message in the lines of ’On your face, Pakistan’, considering Pakistan has been a military dictatorship for the major part of its history. I am sure, this must provide a welcoming relief to the travellers who enter India via this path.
On an unrelated note, this reminds me of Alice Albinia’s Empires of The Indus, she mentions the change of atmosphere once she crosses the border to India, as in the freedom women enjoy in India when compared to Pakistan and people approaching her asking whether she needed alcohol considering she came from an expedition in a dry country.
Want to post a letter? It won’t take much time to reach Lahore when posted here, considering that from this point, Lahore is closer than Amritsar.
Now coming to the gory parts of the experience. This entire ceremony is not at all well managed by BSF. There are no queues, you can be crushed and pushed in the crowd, and BSF folks are responsible for creating a stampede like situation by charging towards people on their horses in the pretext of managing the crowd before the ceremony, the same thing happens after the ceremony where one is treated like cattle by BSF folks near the gate. Don’t mind if you’re shouted on and insulted by a BSF soldier, that’s the norm for them, along with pushing the crowd, hitting them and not even being careful of the elderly. It seems they have utter disregard for the civilians.
Coming to the seating, I’d suggest you to go there only if you manage to get the VIP pass, which if you’re a foreigner, you’ll not need, otherwise in the general area you’ll be made to sit on hot concrete stands far away from the gate and might end up burning your butt. And don’t even go there with the elderly or as a family because men and women have segregated seating areas. The least BSF can have a ticketing system to manage the crowds in a humane way.
While heading back to Amritsar in the jeep, I met a Kashmiri guy, a young school teacher. He had come from Srinagar specially to watch the retreat ceremony on Republic Day. This was strange considering the hostility many Kashmiris harbor towards the Indian state. I wanted to talk to him about this and the core Kashmir issue as I wanted to hear from a regular Kashmiri, the hardships they face and their perception of the Indian state. So I started gradually from asking him about tourism in Srinagar and then moved on to talk about the army harassment and the issue of Kashmiri Pundits as we moved closer to Amritsar. His views surprised me because unlike most of the Kashmiris, his views were neutral, or that’s what he portrayed for I can understand that no Kashmiri would express his real sentiments to an Indian while on Indian mainland. He spoke enthusiastically about tourism in Srinagar and Gulmarg, when I ask him how Kashmiris perceive Indian tourists, he said that Kashmiris love their tourists and would literally shed their blood for them if required (I know, this sounds far-fetched); I also tried to get out of him his sentiments of Kashmiris about the army patrolling and the harassment faced by Kashmiris under Indian Army, enforced kidnappings, and what role Omar Abdullah is playing to revoke the draconian AFSPA. He opened up a bit when I made it clear that I am for the Kashmiri cause. We talked about how some luminaries like Arundhati Roy after speaking in favor of the Kashmiris have experienced the brunt of the masses, and polity not being openly involved in the Kashmir issue because of fear of insurgency, losing vote bank and for the safeguarding of the sources of India’s major rivers. He also expressed his surprise on how people at the border were posing with BSF soldiers for clicks after the ceremony, whereas in Kashmir, locals can’t even even talk to the armed forces under the fear of being harassed or insulted. I wanted to talk further but we reached the city center and had to take leave after exchanging Facebook ids.
Next, I headed to Harmandir Sahib, popularly known as the Golden Temple-which is the most significant Sikh place of worship, and Jallianwala Bagh, which was the site of mass shooting of non-violent Indian protestors by British General Reginald Dyer. More on that in the next post, along with delicious Kulchas of Amritsar.