Every day around
sunset, on the outskirts of Lahore, at the Wagah border between India and
Pakistan, the public gathers to see a show of military muscle and colour in a
ceremony that dates back to 1959.
People from all walks of life become part of the message to the other side. They hold posters expressing solidarity with Kashmir, as loudspeakers blare patriotic songs. There’s also a recorded recitation of Quranic verses that focuses on non-believers.
The road from Pakistan goes up to a gate, painted green, with the national flag emblem. Paramilitary troops stand guard on both sides of this massive metal gate. Beyond is Indian territory, divided by an agreed upon Line of Control. On the Pakistani side two men holding flags perform aerobics. Troops standing on top of the nearby border post blow horns, as if calling for war. It’s a show of triumphalist machismo.
One family, visiting from Karachi, Pakistan’s largest city, is here for the first time. For them, all this is new. “It’s strange to see all of this. It looks well orchestrated,” says one of the women, sitting in the front row of this amphitheatre–like arena.
What follows is a statement of the obvious, but it makes you think all the same. “We were one country. But look at this now. Is this what we are?” she asks. “No, but what can people do? The state controls the narrative in our country,” she replies to the question herself.
By state many refer to the military which has historically dominated foreign and defence policy towards India. Their justification is the troubled history between the two countries, which includes Kashmir, Siachen and the Sir Creek conflict, and three wars since they won independence in 1947.
We were one country. But look at this now. Is this what we are.
It’s not only the visitors who feel there is narrative control, at Wahgah and elsewhere. Outside, on the left and right of the border gate are villages whose residents dream of peace with India. They complain that the border forces have made their lives miserable.
“They have very strict rules. We can’t get out of our homes after 6 p.m. and they harass us all the time,” says Haji Shahzad, a resident of one such village. ‘We live under the threat of these forces, not India.”
Many of these villagers left their homes in the Partition in 1947 and still have relatives on the other side. “We have family in Rajasthan,” says one of Shazad’s neighbours. “We want to go and meet them. Even they want to come and see us. But the bureaucratic hurdles have defeated us,” he adds in an oblique commentary on Pakistan-India relations.
“We left behind everything when we came to this side, but not for such living conditions. Some of our family that stayed in India now mock us about our migration,” says Haji Shahzad, when asked if he’s happy moving to Pakistan.
Despite their problems with the border forces, they believe it was right to move to the Land of the Pure, as many Pakistanis call their country. “Hindus and Muslims could not have lived together so we had to migrate,” the villager adds. Such conviction is reinforced by lobbies in Pakistan that openly propagate hatred of India. They are backed by political, religious and military circles.