The dance of nationalism

For any visitor to India from the western world, there are many sights and experiences that could be described as strange. But undoubtedly one of the strangest is the Wagah border closing ceremony.

Every night, just before sundown, the ceremony takes place 30km west of Amritsar in Panjab. For a long time this spot was the only road border crossing between  India and Pakistan (it’s now one of two), and each night they close the gate between the two countries.

This is no simple matter of swinging and locking a gate though. No, a couple of hours before sundown crowds start gathering either side of the fence, filing through numerous security checks to fill up grandstands. I could only really see the Indian side, though from afar it seemed the Pakistan side was much the same (one notable thing I could see over there that wasn’t on the Indian side was people holding Pakistan flags and spinning on the spot repeatedly).

As the crowds built up, an MC wearing cricket whites began to lead chants and run around, without much difficulty whipping the crowd up into patriotic excitement. At one point he calls for all the women to come out of the stands and on to the (now closed off) road, where they begin a kind of relay – taking turns to run the Indian flag up to the border and back. After a while, the relay stops and the road turns into a dance floor; women dancing and waving flags to the sounds of Indian pop hits.

The ceremony hadn’t even begun, but already it was too much for me. I was grateful for the fact that it was still a bit sunny and I was wearing sunglasses; because when I thought of the dreams of Nehru, Gandhi and the Indian independence movement for a united India and compared it to the scene in front of me, I could feel tears welling up in my eyes.

That fence was never supposed to be there. In fact, until 1947, both sides of the fence where I sat were known simply as Panjab – an area whose inhabitants included Hindus, Muslims and Sikhs among other religious and cultural groups. As part of the struggle for power that came with people rising up against the British Empire, the Muslim League led by Mohammed Ali Jinnah argued successfully for a separate Muslim state of Pakistan.

The League’s fear of Muslims becoming an oppressed minority in India had some justification – as the subsequent rise of Hindu fundamentalism has shown. But the partition of India was a tragedy – millions killed or displaced in inter-religious slaughter, Muslims in other parts of India left politically under-represented, the impoverished people of Bangladesh (once East Pakistan) forced to fight their own independence struggle, and a half-century (and counting) long war that has economically and socially crippled these two young nations – sucking up money that really could have been used elsewhere.

With this in mind, the scene took on another terrifying meaning. As women danced, as the crowd cheered, as touts walked around selling Indian flag caps and facepaint, I couldn’t help but think “people die over this stupid fence.”

Indian nationalism was something I had been interested to see during my time there. My stay, after all, coincided with January 26. In Australia, this date is the anniversary of Captain Arthur Phillip and his first fleet of British convicts landing at Sydney Harbour. These days it seems to be mostly commemorated by white Australians getting dressed up in tacky Australian flag memorabilia, getting drunk and getting a bit racist in their proclamations of why Australia is great. Aboriginal Australians see it a bit differently – for them it is “invasion day” or “survival day”, a time to protest the continuing inequality that has persisted ever since the first white settlers put up the first fence. The official celebrations pay little regard to this or our response to boats landing on our shores a couple of centuries later – they speak in platitudes of “multiculturalism” and “inclusion”. For me at least, the usual Australia Day celebrations do not make me especially proud to have come from this place.

In India, January 26 commemorates the day in 1930 when the Indian Congress of leaders from around the vast population declared their independence from the British Empire. It would take a further seventeen years of struggle, including a mutiny by Indian troops during World War II, before the British agreed to this idea; but I like that Indians still believe this to be the date their republic began – like it was their choice to make, not the British’s.

The different circumstances of these two nations’ beginnings, and the very different compositions – Australia with its majority white, anglophone population of 23 million living on an island isolated from the rest of the world; India with its 1.2 billion people, 20 something languages, multiple religions, porous borders – made me interested to see the different ways these two national days were celebrated. Unfortunately, January 26 was the morning my stomach chose for its inevitable surrender to Delhi belly, and I missed the celebration. So other than people I met earnestly asking me what I thought of the country, the border closing was the first chance I got to see a real display of Indian patriotism.

I guess I hardly need to say that the experience was less than what I had hoped for. While there wasn’t much explicitly anti-Pakistan or anti-Muslim sentiment that I picked up, that is common enough in Indian culture to see it as a subtext. In the chants led by our MC, “India” was not the word used – it was “HIN-DU-STAN!” that the crowd cheered. I know the two terms come from the same root word, but there seemed something ominous about it. What about the 200 million Muslims that live in India? Not to mention Christians, Buddhists, Jains, or any other belief system that have for centuries called the sub-continent home.

The ceremony would only get more and more strange – the militaries took their place on either side of the border and enacted the pseudo-aggressive ritualwagah they have done every night for the last 50 years. Goose-stepping soldiers in bizarre outfits stepping out their strange dance routine (being able to kick yourself in the head shows admirable flexibility, but I’m not sure what else it proves), soldiers whose job it was to yell for extended periods into the microphone; the whole thing seemed comical except that it was done completely stern-faced, to constant support from the crowd.

What did it all mean? The fact that soldiers on either side would copy – step for step, yell for yell – the routine the other had just performed only seemed to point out the ridiculousness of nationalism – if the two sides are pretty much identical, then what’s the point of the fence in between? The soldier routines surely owed more to British colonialism than either culture. The outfits lent themselves to an interesting idea. The crested helmets looked to be inspired by that iconic native Indian bird the peacock. It made me wonder about all this aggressive stomping around. Could it be that nationalism and its disputes are just modern human extensions of the primal masculine need to display virility to potential mates? There’s certainly something phallic about all those guns and cannons, not to mention the obelisks frequently set up as national monuments. Is all this bloodshed just for an elaborate courtship ritual?

The ceremony finished with a synchronised lowering of the Indian and Pakistani flags and the closing of the gate. In the end it was friendly and congenial despite all the aggressive posturing and shouting. People flooded out of the grandstands to have their picture taken in front of the border. The atmosphere was lighter. A friend told me that when he went to the ceremony a few years ago he watched everyone get up and shake hands through the fence. But I still felt uneasy about the whole thing. This “innocent” display of national pride and ceremony is the friendly face of a rivalry that has killed and displaced millions of people. And not just historically. While I was in India a student activist from Delhi was charged with sedition. His crime? Protesting the death of a Kashmiri independence fighter who had been executed by the Indian government. Surreptitiously; things like religion, geography, even sport and pop music are co-opted into this power game that will kill and oppress innocent people mostly for the sake of controlling money and resources.

And we should not think of this as a phenomenon limited to the Indian subcontinent. That last sentence could equally be used to describe Australian nationalism. At a hostel I met a young Muslim from India’s southern tip. He was a very intelligent and friendly guy, but because he is a Tamil speaker he was the target of ads on facebook paid for by the Australian government, reassuring him that “if you come by boat, YOU WON’T BE SETTLED IN AUSTRALIA”. Australia’s xenophobia and militarisation of our own history makes us see conflicts where there are  none, turning anyone different into an enemy. The human costs are measurable in deaths in Afghanistan and Iraq; in refugees rotting away in camps or detention centres.

Early in the border closing ceremony, when the Indian women were dancing to Bollywood hits blasting out of the PA, a couple of middle-aged white women joined in, prompting wild cheers from the crowd in the stands. I looked over at the group of British women, barely out of high school, who I had traveled out to the border with; silently praying they wouldn’t also get up to join. The dance seemed so symbolic. Everyone wants to belong to something – a place and a group of people. But belonging at the expense of others is an illusion. As well as excluding others who have just a much of a right to belong, you are simultaneously excluding yourself from other groups and losing out on what they could offer. Plus there’s no telling when the boundaries change and you could suddenly find yourself on the outer.

True belonging will come when we can look at each other and see commonalities, not differences. Neither losing our own identity in a group nor trying to force change onto others. When we see our own wellbeing as inextricably linked to that of others. Now that’s something to dance about.

1 Comment

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One response to “The dance of nationalism

  1. Hello Andy,

    Thanks for your eyewitness description of the weird partition of the sub-continent with India splitting two Pakistans: East (now Bangladesh) and West.

    The making of the modern nation state is a brutal and inhumane process. Another proof of this were the British Wars of the Roses in the 15th century.

    Donald Trump wants to make the USA great again … by beating that drum he will bring misery to people both inside and outside the American dream.

    The question is: how do we form peaceful, tolerant human communities without the need for the rise of the Nation State?

    Such nationalism only divides humanity with parochial hatreds.

    in solidarity,

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