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Brooding by the Border

Smuggled Salaams At Wagah

(This story was written in the Summer of 1997)

The border outpost of Wagah today is a honeymoon destination, its greatest attraction being the daily beating retreat ceremonials watched by thousands from both sides of the divide. Swept by the bonhomie. Nirupama Dutt wonders whether Partition was worth the bloodshed.

Till 50 years ago, Wagah was just another village in the Majah region of Punjab, located between the historic cities of Amritsar and Lahore. Today, the very mention of Wagah conjures up a different image. The image is one of locked gates, barbed wire and armed guards. It spells the finality of a parting. For, it is here that the ceremonial India-Pakistan border is situated. The two iron gates stand firmly on either side of the narrow stretch of the no-man's land. It was on this stretch of land that Saadat Hasan Manto's Bishan Singh breathed his his last looking for his village called Tobah Tek Singh. The act of dying on the no-man's land was the refusal to accept the Radeliffe Line, which cut one country into Hindustan and Pakistan.

But Wagah still has its share of stories, some written and many others unwritten. Only some days ago, an 85-year-old woman approached the border. Security Force (BSF) jawans with the request that she be allowed to meet her sister who was left behind in Pakistan in 1947 and had been traced only recently. The sister met the Pakistan Rangers with a similar request. Both sides granted the request and the two sisters, one a Hindu woman and the other a Muslim, met for four minutes. Recalling the meeting, BSF Commandant H S Rai says: ``Of those four minutes, the two old ladies spent over a minute just weeping, and in the rest they exchanged a few worlds.''

That's Wagah for you, the last border village of Pakistan. The village this side is called Atari. For some time it was called the Wagah-Atari border. But Wagah was closer to the border than Atari. So why name the divide after two villages? Wagah alone would do. And there is a very interesting side of Wagah. It is not just relatives who reach here to meet. Nor the messiahs of peace and brotherhood bearing torches and candles, and led by Kuldip Nayar and other secular Punjabis as was done last year on August 14, the day of Pakistan's independence – and is being done again this year with an equal participation from across the fence unlike last year.

Nor just the tribe of writers and poets who chose to go sentimental here on the night of December 31 last year. The venue was chosen for the Raja Porus Mela. Yes, the same Porus of Sikandar ne Porus se ki hi ladai fame. Well, Porus was defeated a second time, thanks to the lack of coordination among the Indian hosts, so the Pakistani delegation reached a bit too soon and moved into Calcutta.

Neverthless, the result of the one-sided Mela was the setting up of a memorial, still half-built, which comprises a large marble slab inscribed with two celebrated Partition poems. On one side, there's Amrita Pritam calling out to Waris Shah, the Sufi poet who put in verse the story of Heer, one of Punajb's greatest love legends,in ``Ajj akhan waris shah nu kite kabran vichon bol'' ( I call out to Waris Shah to speak from the grave); on the other, it's Faiz Ahmad Faiz speaking on those who died on the road to history in ``Hum jo tarik rahon mein mare gaye''.

What makes Wagah special is that every evening at sunset there assemble thousands of anonymous Indians and Pakistanis on both sides of the border to watch the beating retreat ceremonials, which for the past many decades, but for the unhappy times of war, are held jointly, in complete harmony, right from the march past, the blowing of the bugle and lowering of the two respective flags. The ceremony over, people on both sides are allowed to stand at the gates and simply look at each other.

It is for the glimpse of the other that people come with children in their arms and stand there looking at each other in silence and smiles. For, if anyone tries to wave or speak, the guards cry out, ``No waving, no talking. Just stand and look at each other.'' BSF officials explain: ``Smugglers use the waving of hands for a code indicating whether their goods are reaching or not. So, we do not allow the gesture.'' Incidentally, Amristar is known for its smuggled goods market. Pakistani dupattas and scarves, which are particularly popular here, are supplied all over Punjab.

The crowds start gathering there much before sunset and the time is spent over a cold drink and coffee listening to patriotic songs being piped on our side. A popular number that BSF officials like to play is Mohammad Iqbal's Saare jahan se achha Hindustan hamara. One wonders if the other side is playing a latter-day composition of Iqbal's: Cheen-o-Arab hamara.

On a recent visit to Wagah, though, I came across another kind of music. No longer the patriotic songs. The popular numbers in this the golden jubilee year of the parting are Pardesi, pardesi, jaana nahin from the blockbuster Raja Hindustani and Chappa chappa charkha chale from Gulzar's Maachis. But what's behind the popularity of this speck on India's map? To this query, Commandant Rai answers with a smile: ``For one thing, Wagah is included in the Punjab Tourism package. We have at least one honeymoon couple a day. The other reason is the curiosity the people of the two countries have for each other.''

Regular visitors to the border say the atmosphere is very relaxed and the vibes friendly. Says writer Prem Avtar Raina: ``It has to be. The berlin Wall has crumbled and the barbed wire too will melt. The whole world is moving into an era of ethnic states. And it is good that there is a Punjabi for a prime minister here, and there.'' There are others, too, who like to do such wishful thinking. Gurdip Singh, an aged farmer from Bhullar village, stands there muttering: ``It was one Punjab which was cut into two. People on either side speak the same language.''

As the ceremony is taking place, one hears cries of Pakistan Payamdabad from the other side and soon enough people this side cry out, Bharat Mata Ki Jai, with an occasional Bole So Nihal, Sat Sri Akal thrown in. But these are not war cries of death and destruction as they were in 1947, but a hail-fellow-well-met kind of exchange.

``Ladies and children first,'' cry the guards soon after the beating retreat ceremonials. Women and children run to the gates on both sides to stand and just gaze at each other. ``Look at the Pakistani children, they're just like us,'' cries a child from our side.

Standing in the midst of the crowd my eyes meet those of a young Pakistani woman. I smile and she returns the smile, raising her hand in a salam. I too raise my hand in the return greeting of wahlekum salam. The guards do not notice and the thrill is of having smuggled a salam there on the border. Until the barbed wire sprouts folwers, as a Punjabi poet hopes, it will have to be a salaam smuggled across the Wagah border.

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