South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

The Attari-Wagah border between India and Pakistan displayed the mix of excitement and momentousness this August 14-15 midnight that it usually does as the two countries celebrate their independence days. This midnight occasion has become its own ritual, poignant and significant in its meaning, for nearly two decades now.

In its theme, thrust and purpose, this August midnight ritual is markedly different from the one that takes place every evening as security forces on either side lower their country’s flag at sunset, known as Beating the Retreat. That has become a jingoistic event with audiences on each side screaming hyper-nationalist slogans.

If the daily ritual is a reminder of the tensions that continue to exist 68 years after the Partition, the annual August ritual at midnight between August 14-15 is a reminder that peaceful relations are possible. It is a hope for our future.
The balmy August midnight sees a turnout of peace activists on both sides of the border, at Attari and at Wagah (Indians inaccurately refer to it as the Wagah border because that place is in Pakistan). This time, about 100 peace activists gathered at Attari and about 70 at Wagah. Unlike the daily evening ritual, there was no show of power and might to demonstrate either country’s strength.

Instead, the peace activists assembled before the gates on either side carried candles in their hands. Their slogans reverberated in the quiet of the night, hopefully across the border into the other side. “We want bread, not bombs,” they said in one voice; “Liberalise Visa regime” and “Long Live India-Pakistan Friendship”. But the most poignant of all was the lustily shouted: “Hindustan-Pakistan Zindabad”.

For the August midnight ritual, India’s Border Security Force personnel allowed the peace activists to come closer to the gate and helped in any way they could. The Pakistan Rangers extended similar courtesies to the peaceniks on their side.

We could see candles on the Pakistan side but it was too dark to identify the peace activists there. However, their spirited slogans could be heard loud and clear. One voice we heard that of the well-known Pakistani activist Saeeda Diep, familiar to most Indians working on the issue of sustainable peace between India and Pakistan. She represents a saner voice of Pakistan’s society, which unfortunately is not given importance.

The assembled activists on both sides represent many who favour an uninterrupted and uninterruptible dialogue between the two countries. Every time the peace process moves ahead, we see an attempt to derail it. This pause in the dialogue only helps those who do not want enduring peace between the two countries. It is all the more necessary to continue the dialogue at such a time. Only by talking and talking peace, can we defeat the design of the forces inimical to peace.

The candle-light vigil this time was held against the background of the attacks in Gurdaspur and Udhampur, and the upcoming meeting on August 23-24 in New Delhi between Ajit Doval, the Indian National Security Advisor (NSA) and Sartaj Aziz, Pakistan’s NSA.

The meeting between the two NSAs was decided at Ufa, Russia, where the prime ministers of both the countries met on the sidelines of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO) meeting last month. They also decided to follow with a meeting of the directors general of military operations (DGMOs) of both countries. This is all the more necessary given the increase in ceasefire violations in the last couple of months.

Member of Parliament of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) Mohammad Salim attended the Aug 14-15 celebration at Attari. Addressing the gathering, he emphasised the importance of peace between two countries for the development of not only these two countries but for all countries of Saarc. India and Pakistan are major players in Saarc and the regional bloc has been rendered virtually non-effective because of the tense relations between India and Pakistan.

Beyond the high-table talk and high-power optics of heads of state lie the intent and efforts of the average citizen such as the August midnight celebration. One such person is Ramesh Yadav, who with his colleagues from Amritsar, has mobilised hundreds of people so far to be at Attari on the midnight of August 14-15 for nearly 20 years. They have also built a Martyr’s Memorial at the border in lasting memory of the hundreds of thousands of people who were butchered during Partition.

India’s Folklore Research Society constructed this memorial in 1994 in a matter of days. Peace activists usually light candles at the memorial too as they shout slogans at the gate. Ranjiv Sharma of Folklore Research Society said, “Around one crore people lost their home and homeland in the sad moment of the history”. He also said that very few people used to come to watch Beating the Retreat in the early 1990s but now it attracts a few thousand people every evening – a sign of the increasingly masculine jingoistic view of nationalism.

Against this backdrop, the August midnight joint Independence Day celebration acquires greater significance. Usually, the occasion also sees various activities in Amritsar propagating the importance of peace and the relation between development and peace. This year too, on August 14, there was a seminar on ‘How to counter terrorism in South Asia’. In the evening a cultural programme with Sufi music and Punjabi songs followed.

The enthusiasm among the residents of Amritsar, among the most affected during Partition, gives peaceniks hope.
It is time saner voices on both sides of the border were heard. It is time to go beyond prejudices and see the Attari-Wagah border as a symbol of peaceful coexistence instead of nationalistic jingoism. 

The writer is a Mumbai-based journalist and activist, currently general secretary of the India chapter of the Pakistan-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD)