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15 Aug, 2010

Make the Wagah Border a Zone of Peace & Friendship

Originally Published: 15 August 2010

The death, destruction and suffering in Pakistan caused by the devastating floods never fail to arouse some heavy-duty soul-searching about why such events are occurring with such frequency worldwide.

CHANGE OF TONE: A soldier of the Indian Border Security Force, left, smiles as he shakes the hand of his Pakistani counterpart in the daily ceremony at Wagah

Even India has been affected, although nowhere near the same extent. It is even more heartbreaking that the tragedy has struck when both countries are marking their independence days, Pakistan on August 14 and India on August 15.

For those who believe in a compassionate, forgiving God, as I do, it remains an enduring question as to what God in His eminent wisdom hopes to achieve by inflicting so much suffering on millions of innocent, poverty-stricken people, especially the young, the aged and the handicapped.

One will never know for sure, but assuming that there are lessons to be learnt, and that He would like to see us, the living, seek to do some good, this appears to be an eminently opportune moment to redouble efforts to push for a lasting, durable and just peace between the two neighbours.

There would be no better place to start than at the Wagah border checkpoint between India and Pakistan, which I, along with a group of Thai journalists, visited early last month on invitation from the Pakistani embassy.

Located only 8 km from the bustling city of Lahore on the Pakistani side and 30 kilometres from the Sikh holy city of Amritsar on the Indian side, the checkpoint has witnessed since 1951 a “Lowering of the Flag” ceremony conducted by the border guards of the two countries.

At 5 pm daily, come rain or shine, tall and ramrod-straight border guards of the two sides undertake a fire and brimstone ritual to lower their national flags and officially close the border gates, marking the end of business for the day.

The ceremony reeks of confrontation, with swords drawn, foot-stomping and aggressive movements of the heads, arms and legs. On both sides, thousands gather to witness it, with loud cheering of patriotic and nationalistic slogans. The guards exchange a brief handshake but in a way that defeats the purpose.

Just two days before we visited, Indian and Pakistani media reported that both sides have decided to “tone down” the ceremonial heat a little and “sow the seed of friendship by exchanging smiles (when they shake hands) instead of aggressive gestures”.

It did not take too long to agree on this, apparently because the border guards on both sides complained that the over-energetic foot-stomping, goose-stepping and high-flying kicks during the ceremonial parade were causing them knee and joint injuries.

The smile-and-handshake lasts just a few seconds but it is truly a heart-warming and inspiring moment. My camera ready, I clicked at just the right time, elated to be one of first journalists in Southeast Asia to record this historic change of heart just a few days after it was put into place.

But as we returned to Lahore, it occurred to me that much more could be done to shed the ceremony’s militaristic, nationalistic and religious frenzy and replace it with other symbolic acts to bond the two peoples culturally, socially and personally. That would do far more to build lasting friendships and peace, and allow the symbolism to filter all the way down into the countries’ political and social psyche.

I would wager that opinion polls conducted in the two countries will always yield a majority view in favour of peace. The parameters may certainly include a few “ifs” and “buts” but the end result will never be in dispute.

A quick search on the Internet showed that the Wagah border area has been the venue of some symbolic peace events such as an annual midnight peace vigil, but these have been one-off, ad hoc events with no lasting impact. There is ample scope for much more to be done.

For example, why not have a separate daily border ceremony at which one or two pre-selected individuals could exchange bouquets of flowers, and maybe a brief embrace?

Why not convert the entire area into a huge “zone of peace” where, under adequate security controls, the two sides could hold joint concerts, festivals and sports events? Cricket matches could be held not against each other but by mixing the two 11-man teams to include six of one and five of the other.

As Aug 12 marked the start of International Year of Youth, why not hold annual conventions of young people to generate ideas for peace?

Why not create some kind of permanent space, similar to the Demilitarised Zone that divides the two Koreas, to allow families and friends to meet without having to physically cross the border. That would not only circumvent the complex and cumbersome visa application processes but the sheer volume of demand would lead to a flourishing border trade, tourism and commercial opportunities on both sides.

The theme song for this entire change of mood could be “Aye Mohabbat Zindabad” (O Love, May it Live Forever) from the hit movie classic Mughal-e-Azam, one of the biggest box office hits in the history of Indian cinema.

It would be a rare Indian who has not heard of this film. However, it will come as news to many Indians that the singer, Mohammed Rafi, one of India’s greatest playback singers, was born in Kotla Sultan Singh, a town near Amritsar, India, whose father shifted to Lahore, Pakistan, in 1935-36 and set up a men’s salon. It was after his talent was spotted and he moved to India that his career took off.

Even more intriguing is the fact that Dilip Kumar, the hero who lip-syncs the song in the movie itself, was born Muhammad Yusuf Khan in Peshawar, Pakistan, to a Pathan family with twelve children. His father, too, moved to India where the striking good looks of the young Yusuf Khan attracted the attention of a film-maker and catapulted him into one of India’s greatest acting thespians.

Nothing binds the two countries more strongly than their art, music, culture and dance. If that can be nurtured to take the lead at the Wagah border, the rest will follow.

On both sides, there are too many vested interests still keen to keep the cauldron of conflict bubbling.

However, if acts of God, such as the devastating floods, cannot be avoided, much can be done to settle problems caused by acts of Man. A flood of man-made creativity and peace-building is what is really needed, and perhaps long overdue.