It’s a truth universally acknowledged that no visit to Amritsar, the dusty capital of the western state of Punjab, is complete without a trip to the legendary border between India and Pakistan. And so my two friends and I piled into a taxi one afternoon with our friendly Sikh driver and took off. An hour later, after many brilliant green rice paddies and pictures of our driver’s two daughters, we reached a congested checkpoint.
The road to the border involved being touched by a lot of female police officers patting us down in multiple security checkpoints. Once we made it through, we joined the other bedraggled tourists in the “VIP” foreigner section in the bleachers, while the Indian families dressed in their bejeweled best for the big event crowded beside us. To my right was a gate flying a familiar tricolor flag over India; across the gate 200 meters to my left was Pakistan.
And then we waited. And waited for an hour. And waited for two hours. It was absurdly hot: we downed three liters of water each and sweat out all of it. Meanwhile, speakers churned out the latest Bollywood hits and the crowd erupted into an impromptu dance party. Teenage girls and tourists took turns running with the Indian flag for a photo op. We were subjected to an inspirational (i.e. propagandistic) recording lauding the Border Security Forces.
And that was all before the ceremony even started.
It began with an MC in all-white riling up the crowd into raucous cheers while a bedecked officer yelled into a mike for as long as he could – in competition with his Pakistani counterpart. He eventually took a breath, and then they both did it again. This went on for some time. Finally, spurred on by the female officer on the drums, the marching began.
Now you should know that this is no ordinary marching. The officers are robotic in their movements and lift their legs higher than is humanly possible. Multiple pairs take their turns, mirrored by their Pakistani doubles, until they are ready to close the gate and lower the flags. By this point, I was getting tired of staring into the sun, and was beginning to wonder how long this ceremony lasted.
Stumbling along the road back to the parking lot with the rest of the sweat-drenched crowd forced me to reflect.
On the most bizarre spectacle of entertainment I’ve ever seen, made more bizarre by the fact that it is a comical veneer for a history of deep-ceded hatred. Constructed like a game, it is a microcosm of the serious reality of conflict cemented in construction of the “other” – an opponent, a rival, an enemy.
Indians and Pakistanis were neighbors in Punjab before the scratch of an imperialist’s pen tore them apart in Partition, the largest mass migration in human history. Now, they are enemies. Now, the divide is irreparable, the differences immutable, the distance impassable. Now we zoom our camera lenses and peer over to the other side, wondering who “they” are and what “they” are like. But maybe they are just like us.
For what does it mean to be Indian or Pakistani? What does it mean to be American or British? For when colonialists can carve out countries with conferences, the claim that nationalism is our irrefutable identity becomes doubtable. For are countries real entities, or just something to which we cling because we need to belong?
In the past, it was family, it was tribe, it was kingdom - the construction of community that defines us as human beings. In our modern world, it’s nation-state. Nation-state is our survival as human beings and our legitimization as citizens; it protects us and it defines us.
And inevitably, it defines the “other”. For what would it mean, after all, to be Indian, if it didn’t mean not Pakistani? How can you define something without its contrast? For the dark side of belonging is what is beyond that belonging, what it outside that belonging, what - who - does not belong.