Amritsar : Borderlands, Blood Lines and Bullets
Amritsar Travel Blog› entry 228 of 268 › view all entries
She runs towards the border. Her eyes glistening with the flag of her nation held high. Young and strong. She runs with passion, and pride perhaps. For freedom? For country? For fun? The thick undulating bands of saffron, white and green stream along in the wind above her head. The flag, clasped tightly by both hands fluttering in the slipstream of her fervour as she runs ever closer to the border.
Panting and hitching up her sari, but smiling all the way, the girl's mother jogs along behind her. An impassioned attempt to keep up with India's new generation as it rushes towards the future? She represents a generation inured to the ideas of division and national identity. Her flag raised up with her free arm, she pants and struggles.
Did her parents run towards the border with fear or hope? North to south? Did they understand the importance of flags? Which one to carry yet? Did they understand History and all its often ill intent? The importance of borderlines written in blood.
Jantine, the rest of the gang and I are sat watching as wave after wave of Indian women of all generations charge, laughing towards the Attari border gate at Wagah, their flags held high. Found 30 kilometres west of Amritsar ( and about the same distance from Lahore to the east) this is the only border crossing between India and Pakistan and its elaborate and frankly bizarre early evening closing ceremony has become the stuff of minor legend.
Ushered up into football terrace style stands lining the umbilical road that links the two nations, the crowd on the Indian side of the border expands rapidly. Loud music plays. Volume cranked ever higher. On the back rows enthusiastic young patriots wave large Indian flags from side to side leading the crowd in cries of 'Hindustan zindabad!' ( 'Long live India!' ) and 'Jai Hind!' ( 'Victory to India!' ). Their volume cranking ever higher. A large group of people, mostly young girls, throng onto the road and dance Bangra-style with happy abandon to the music.
Aside from these civilian revelries the Attari border closing ceremony is all about military posturing. A slightly farcical feeling face-off between India and Pakistan's Boyz. A Master of Ceremonies on 'our side’ holds a microphone up to one soldier after another as they inhale and then try and hold the note 'eeyyyyyyyyyyyyy' long enough to out-chant their Pakistani opposite numbers. National pride measured in lung capacity. Sounding ever so slightly like The Fonz on steroids. Today Pakistan win this little contest hands down.
Then, the most famous image of the ceremony, the frankly surreal and quite violent looking leg-stamping, stepping and strutting manoeuvres that are gone through before, one at a time, the soldiers from each side stride up to the border gate and repeat intimidating stamps, chest thrusts and pivots in front of their counterpart before stamping back, and stepping into line. The appearance of two prize cocks puffing up their chests and colours in a show of (male) territorial defiance is enhanced by the extravagant, slightly comedic uniforms with their 'red rooster' hats and gold brocade but slightly undermined by the fact that the process looks little more than a poor imitation of John Cleese's Ministry of Silly Walks sketches for Monty Python. At the end of all the posturing and comedy and cheering from the crowds (sadly a very tiny gathering of people visible in the Pakistani stands) the metal gates are slammed and rolled shut and the flags of the nations simultaneously lowered and folded away.
The Punjab and Amritsar have not always been borderlands pulsing with surface-tensions, anger and history's innumerable wounds. Partition of course followed a long chain of historical events. One of the most significant and undoubtedly most notorious events to fan the flames of independence in India and arguably accelerate the end of British rule therein was the Jallianwala Bagh massacre. Today a serene and sun-drenched public park accessed via a narrow street-side passage on the southerly Mahna Singh Road, less than five minutes walk from the Golden Temple, on 13th April 1919 things were not so calm. In response to the British Government's new Rowlatt Act* and a week or so following a proposed 'Rowlatt Satyagraha'** (a 'hartal' or peaceful general strike suggested but later called off by Gandhi) report of a large gathering in the Jallianwala Bagh park reached the ears of Brigadier-General Reginald Dyer.
As Jantine and I stroll around the sun-flooded park grounds little sense of past tragedy imbues the atmosphere. Calmness and laughter the only sounds. Young friends and couples drape themselves languorously across the warm grassy grounds. Flowers proliferate where bullets once flew. Happy smiling Indian tourist families move around in packs pouncing (ever-so-politely) on foreigners to have their photos taken with them.
The only visible traces of the massacre are the bullet holes that remain scattered across and dug into one or two of the park walls. Bordered in white rectangles and squares to highlight their stone-cauterized malignancy. History and pain transposed to geometric compositions. Walls don't bleed but have the dumb power to speak of suffering. Silent reminders. So many bullets extracted from the architectural frame.
And what a jewel it is! Set both amidst the ructions and socio-political upheavals of history and the typical choking chaos, filth and noise of all modern Indian urban centres, the Golden Temple is a true oasis.
But of course its aesthetic praises must be sung also. The Golden Temple, whose construction was completed in 1604 under the auspices of the 5th of the 10 Sikh Gurus, Guru Arjan Dev, is one of the most beautiful set-pieces of architecture I have had the pleasure to set eyes upon in my travels. Having many second generation Sikh friends from my ten years in Birmingham, England, I have often had its beauties regaled and seen their eyes cloud over with a mixture of remembered awe and ongoing pride that this should be the glittering heart of their faith and culture.
Living in the grounds of the Temple for several days you are taught the infinite colours and shades that gold can impart to the world - and cease to wonder why it be the eternal bewitcher of kings, men and women alike.
As one sits and contemplates the various forms of beauty and benevolence that create the aura of great serenity encircling the temple it is hard to imagine a time when peace amidst these grounds was not so.
Of the three principle religious communities affected by Partition - an act ostensibly concerned with the absurd proposition of separating Hindu and Muslim populations and concerns - in many ways it was the Sikhs who were culturally and politically most marginalised and disenfranchised by the event. The Punjab being their spiritual and physical homeland, now riven in two, and their people subject to wave after wave of violence as the largest 'peace time' mass migration of peoples - mostly Hindus and Muslims - swept one way or another across it, the bloody consequences of partition certainly chimed with the tune as old as the Sikh religion that sings of ceaseless persecutions and martyrdoms.
1947 saw the birth not only of independent India and Pakistan but also one Jarnail Singh Bhindranwale. Fast forward to 1982 and moving on into 1984, feeding on these feelings of marginalisation and persecution Bhindranwale ( now a radical political Sikh cleric fatefully brought to power by Indira Gandhi ) and a group of his followers pursuing an independent 'pure' Sikh state of Khalistan locked themselves into and fortified the Golden Temple complex. Smuggling in arms over a period of time and taking the law into their own hands (with executions of Sikhs within and Hindus without the Temple grounds) were acts that eventually provoked a siege of the holy site by the authorities at the behest of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, daughter of Jawarharlal Nehru, independent India‘s first leader.
Launched in June 1984, whilst successful in ending the siege of The Golden Temple and bringing about the death of Bindranwale many, many Sikh civilians visiting the temple also lost their lives as a result of Operation Blue Star. If you keep a keen lookout, as at Jallianwala Bagh, you may still spot bullet 'wounds' in the white marble walls of the Temple grounds. The Temple would again be taken over by Sikh militants, acolytes of Bindranwale, in both 1986 and 1988. Walking through the 'The Central Museum of Sikhism' just two paintings hang near the museum's conclusion relating to the original take over.
On the morning of 31 October 1984 ahead of a lunch appointment with the Dalai Lama Indira Gandhi was assassinated. Shot down by her two Sikh bodyguards. Vengeance exacted. A violent revenge for the loss of life and her perceived defilement of the Golden Temple with Blue Star and political injustices meted out to Sikh and other political opposition during her notorious 1975-'76 'Emergency'.
On the morning of her death it was Indira's daughter-in-law Sonia who drove Indira to hospital though she was Dead On Arrival. 31 bullets extracted from her frame. Sonia's husband and Indira's son Rajiv Gandhi took over the Premiership from his mother but he too would be assassinated in May 1991, this time by the (recently defeated and theoretically disbanded) Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam or 'Tamil Tigers'. Fast forward again to 2004 and we have the widow Sonia Gandhi achieving a surprise victory in the Lok Sabha general elections as head of the Congress United Progressive Alliance.
She runs towards the border. Her black hair streaming in the breeze, accompanied by saffron and white and green. She runs towards the division line, smiling and with flag raised high. Running with all her energy. With all her heart. But she must turn back now and run the other way.
As dusk draws down over the curious parade at Attari, I point out to Jantine as two small birds cut across the Indian sky and flit over the border to Pakistan without trouble or impediment. 'They don't have any problems crossing the border' I say. And it's true. The sky, even a foot above the iron gates, is not a divided entity. Not for the birds anyway. And if you were to rise high enough, and look down upon this gathering from a elevation where humans cease to be visible, you would notice that from there no lines can be seen.
Attari Border Ceremony : 7 of us commandeered a shared mini-van taxi from practically within the grounds of the Golden Temple Complex for 60Rs (75p) per head, return.
* The Rowlatt Act - Signed in as legislature in March 1919, the Rowlatt act permitted more or less indiscriminate internship of anyone even suspected of acts of sedition against the British Government/ Crown. Gatherings in public places of more than 3 people (5 perhaps?) were outlawed for a time, this having brought the 1,000+ gathering at Jallianwala Bagh to the Authorities attention.
** Satyagraha - translating roughly as 'Truth Force', Satyagraha was the name applied by Mahatma Gandhi to the various acts that composed his long history of peaceful protests in South Africa and later India.