Beating the Retreat ceremony: Leading the march, winning hearts at Attari-Wagah border
The Beating the Retreat ceremony at Wagah border, which starts before sunset, is led by a BSF assistant commandant and comprises 13 other personnel, including a sub-inspector and two women constables.
Back in 1959, it started as a goodwill gesture at Wagah, the road checkpost between India and Pakistan. At sunset, border guards on both sides of zero line that divides the two nations lower their national flags, reminiscent of the ritual of warring armies when they called an overnight truce.
Sixty years on, Beating the Retreat is not only a daily drill performed by the Border Security Force (BSF) and the Pakistan Rangers but it has also emerged as a major tourist attraction on both sides of the Radcliff Line.
Punjab tourism department officials say 15,000 people watch the ceremony daily and the count goes up to 25,000 on weekends, while more than 30,000 are present on Independence Day and Republic Day.
The ceremony, which starts before sunset, is led by a BSF assistant commandant and comprises 13 other personnel, including a sub-inspector and two women constables. It starts 25 minutes before the flags of both countries are lowered and the gates on zero line are closed.
Indian and Pakistani personnel, attired in khaki and black uniforms, march smartly towards zero line, stomping their feet and raising them high besides making aggressive gestures such as raising fists and twirling moustaches, with flag-waving spectators cheering and raising slogans.
Kargil made all the difference
Initially, it was a friendly ritual with none of the present day bravado. A BSF official said India’s 1999 victory over Pakistan in Kargil made all the difference. So did the opening up of the Indian media space in the preceding years.
BSF deputy inspector general (DIG), Amritsar sector, JS Oberoi says: “In the past five years, national pride among people has increased. There’s been a surge in footfall here. Earlier, only 5,000 people a day would come here. The Punjab tourism board is also promoting the ceremony. So more visitors come to express solidarity with the personnel defending our borders.”
Vivek Arora from Mumbai, a frequent visitor, says, “Every Indian should watch this ceremony. It not only instills a sense of nationalism but also makes us proud of what we are as a nation.”
2nd most-visited tourist destination in Amritsar
District tourism officer Gursharan Singh says, “It’s the second most visited tourist destination in Amritsar after Golden Temple, which 50,000 people visit on weekdays and 1 lakh on weekends. Earlier, Jallianwala Bagh was the second most visited tourist destination in the district, which is now being visited by 10,000 tourists daily. However, we have been seeing 15,000 tourists at the border on weekdays since 2018.”
In view of the popularity, an upgraded spectators’ gallery with a capacity to accommodate 25,000 people was built at the JCP for ₹32 crore in 2018. The old gallery could accommodate only 5,000 people.
The new U-shaped gallery, like the one on the Pakistan side, is 32 metres high, equivalent to a nine-floor building, with 22 domes constructed atop to give it a heritage look. The gallery has a conference hall, 140 public toilets, nine barracks for jawans, a medical-aid room, a meeting hall, a dining hall, a kitchen, an army weaponry exhibition room and a souvenir shop. A new gate, built for ₹22 lakh, was installed in August 2018, on the Indian side.
Another BSF official says Pakistan has not upgraded its gallery, which can accommodate 5,000 people.
Fraught with risks
BSF personnel performing the choreographed ceremony often suffer from injuries caused by high-impact stomping of feet on the hard gravel surface.
“I’ve had joint pain for a while. Some of my colleagues take painkillers,” says a head constable performing the parade for three years. Another constable says, “Though we get special shoes for the parade, they are of little help.”
Oberoi says, “We ensure that personnel are rotated and participate in the parade twice a week. Our orthopaedic surgeon reviews their health. We also get support from Government Medical College, Amritsar.”
A team of 42 personnel is trained for the parade with 14 performing daily. Though they get extra diet, after the parade they do the seven hours of patrolling or regular sentry duty. Personnel are posted at the joint check post for three years but those who do well get an extension.
In 2010, the two countries agreed to reduce aggressive gesturing but the move was short-lived. “A review showed there was no spice left for spectators,” says Oberoi.
Indo-Pak Friendship Front secretary Deepkal Bali, however, says, “The ceremony has become a show and platform where people of both countries are instigated against each other. The show is held to fuel aggression. Instead of showing bravado, the ceremony should be simple. The forces of both countries should pay respect when the flags are lowered.”