National Identities at the Wagah Border Ceremony
This is a reflection on my experiences witnessing the Wagah border closing ceremony in June 2017 and walking across the Pakistan – India border in June 2019. This piece was originally written in October 2021 for my postgraduate course Borders and Development at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), where I am studying as part of my Marshall Fellowship.
The Wagah border crossing between India and Pakistan was like no border I had ever seen. On either side of Wagah, civilians are prohibited from coming within 10 kilometers of the border due to the potential for ‘armed conflict.’ By contrast, the Wagah crossing was a festive scene complete with fragrant food carts, lively dance music, and endless rows of stadium seats.
Each day at sunset, the border is closed in a joint state ceremony conducted by Indian security forces on one side and Pakistani officials on the other. The event is touted as a heartwarming expression of goodwill between two otherwise hostile neighbors, but I soon realized the ceremony was rife with symbolism that was anything but friendly. It quickly became apparent why the border resembled a theater: it was intended as a space for performing nationalism and reproducing national identities.
Two small gates stand over the painted line on the pavement dividing India and Pakistan. Across the border line lies the Pakistani Stadium. Credit: Ann Monk ©, June 2019.
The immense seating of the Indian stadium, looking desolate as I walked across the border from Pakistan. Credit: Ann Monk ©, June 2019.
As the ceremony began, spectators were encouraged to run with their national flags from the stadium entrance to the demarcation line. The crowd applauded enthusiastically, all the while shouting either “Hindustan Zindabad” or “Pakistan Zindabad,” depending on which side of the border they happened to be sitting. (Zindabad means ‘long live’ in both Hindi and Urdu; not coincidentally, they are the same language and just use different alphabets).
Next, speakers on the Indian side began to blare a popular Bollywood song about a dance competition called ‘India Waale,’ and the crowd poured into the stadium’s center to dance. I knew the song well and had often sung along without a second thought, but the lyrics took on a deeper meaning in the performative space of the border. The title itself means ‘Indians,’ and the chorus proclaims:
जाने ना हमको ये ज़माना चाहो तो हमको आज़माना हर जीत छीन ले हार से इंडिया वाले दुश्मन के छक्के छुड़ा दे हम इंडिया वाले
The world doesn't know our full potential yet If you wish to, test us We can snatch victory from the hands of defeat, we are Indians We defeat our enemies, we are Indians
Spectators were invited to run across the stadium with their national flag. Credit: Ann Monk ©, June 2017.
The stadium center was packed as people danced to the song ‘India Waale.’ Credit: Ann Monk ©, June 2017.
The entire performance was over-the-top, complete with a master of ceremonies and soldiers doing acrobatic kicks in extravagant attire. The event concluded with a curt handshake between an Indian and a Pakistani soldier – the only sign of amiability throughout the entire ceremony. Then the flags were lowered with much fanfare and the border gates were locked for the night.
Spectators Indian and Pakistani border security agents in extravagant attire performing acrobatic kicks and ceremoniously carrying the national flag. Credit: Ann Monk ©, June 2017.
The proceedings at Wagah are not overtly antagonistic, but the event’s underlying hostility is unmistakable. In reality, the ceremony is not a celebration of neighborly friendship but rather “a ritual display in which thousands of people publicly aver their belonging to and participation in the nation.” The border is much more than the white line on the pavement signifying where India ends and Pakistan begins – it is a process for territorializing and nationalizing local populations.
In this way, the Wagah ceremony is a bordering tool employed to reaffirm the partition of India and Pakistan by transforming an ‘administrative’ space into a theater for performing and reinterpreting national identities. The ceremony and indeed the border is used as a mechanism of ‘othering,’ in which Indian identity is defined in opposition to Pakistani identity. In this way, Wagah shows that borders are as much an ideological apparatus as a physical one, with this process of bordering continually negotiated and performed in the everyday.
That the Indo-Pak border is employed as a tool for ‘othering’ is particularly significant when one recalls that the border was only constructed a few decades ago, during the 1947 Partition. Although there were several instances of sectarian violence in preceding decades, these paled in comparison to the communal massacres that occurred following the border’s creation. Over one million civilians were slaughtered in these massacres, and 15 million were displaced across the newly created border.
The violent imposition of this border brought religious tensions in the subcontinent from a light simmer to a rolling boil, and the effects of Partition are still felt today. One example is the Hindutva ideology of India’s ruling BJP party, which seeks to equate ‘Indianness’ with ‘Hinduness’ and defines Indian national identity as diametrically opposed to Pakistani identity, thereby extending the process of ‘othering’ that I witnessed at Wagah beyond the physical border and into politics, media and everyday life.
When I was in India in June of 2019, India’s prime minister Narendra Modi (and leader of the BJP) was up for reelection but faced low approval ratings. Seeking to improve his standing, Modi escalated tensions with Pakistan over the disputed territory of Kashmir, ultimately teetering on the brink of war. I had planned to visit Pakistan shortly after election day, but relations between the two countries had become so strained that they closed their airspaces. My only options were to buy a $1,000 flight through Saudi Arabia or to walk across the only border crossing still open: Wagah.
Crossing the border was a lengthy ordeal with endless visa checks and security screenings. Yet after several hours at the border, the only travelers I’d seen were a mother and daughter from Kashmir. It has always been extremely difficult for Pakistani and Indian nationals to cross the border, but the heightened tensions rendered obtaining a visa impossible. I asked many people on both sides of the border if they had ever crossed it; not one person had, and several laughed incredulously at the idea.
This dismembering of once-unified communities is perhaps the most devastating result of Partition. The Indo-Pak border is successful in ‘othering’ precisely because people cannot cross it and meet the ‘other.’ On a recent taxi ride the driver admitted, “back in Pakistan, the media and politics taught me to hate India.” Upon moving to London, he was shocked to discover how much he had in common with Indian residents of the city: they spoke the same language, cooked similar cuisine, and shared many customs and traditions. Now, he told me, he has many Indian friends – Muslim, Sikh and Hindu.
Looking back, it is shocking to realize how much of this animosity, this hatred, is rooted in an artificially created border. I will always wonder what might have been possible in a unified country, left to imagine what could have been.