During our visit to India to attend the Golden Jubilee celebrations of raising of our regiment – 75 Medium Regiment (Basantar River) – we watched the Retreat Ceremony at Hussainiwala Border Post. Unlike most international borders, where no such daily ceremonies are held, retreat ceremonies are held on Indo-Pak border at dusk.
Canada and USA share the longest International Boundary in the world, which is mostly unmanned, except at crossing points. The border came into existence at the end of bitterly fought American Revolutionary War between Great Britain and the United States with the Treaty of Paris of 1783. In 1925, the International Boundary Commission came into being with the task of surveying and mapping the boundary, maintaining boundary pillars and buoys and keeping the boundary clear of bush and vegetation for six meters.
Ontario province has 14 road border crossings, one truck ferry, and four passenger ferries with the United States. The most popular crossing is the Rainbow Bridge near Niagara Falls. This is a popular border crossing for pedestrians, however, trucks are not permitted to use this bridge. The boundary runs through the centre of this bridge. Surely, the two countries hardly ever hold any border ceremonies.
There are only three trading posts, Wagah (Punjab), Chakan da Bagh (Rajouri, Kashmir) and Kaman (Uri, Kashmir) on the Indo-Pak border through which people and goods move. Chakan da Bagh Post and Kaman Post is manned by Indian Army soldiers and they do not hold any ‘retreat’ ceremonies. However, they exchange sweets on important national and religious days.
A ‘retreat ceremony’ in military parlance signals the end of duty day and when the national flag is brought down. The band if present or the bugler will sound ‘retreat’. The lowering of the flag is coordinated with the playing of the music so the two are completed at the same time. It is a ritual in every military unit and often coincides with the change of guard for the night.
Retreat ceremonies are held on the Indo-Pak border in Punjab at Wagah (Amritsar), Hussainiwala (Firozepur and Sadiqi (Fazilka) by the Border Security Force (BSF) of India and Rangers of Pakistan. Neither the Indian Army nor the Pakistan Army is involved in this heavily choreographed flag-lowering ceremony. The drill movements are over exaggerated and at times is near ridiculous and mostly absurd. One would even wonder as to whether such ceremonies hold any value in modern civilised world. Whatever it may be, the ritual has endured through half a century despite many diplomatic upheavals, border skirmishes, economic warfare and mutual misunderstandings.
Hussainiwala Border served as the major road crossing between Indian and Pakistan till 1970. At that time, it acted as a trade route for truckers, mainly to import Kandahari Angoor (dehydrated grapes) as well as other fruits and food products from Pakistan and Afghanistan. The post was closed for trade in 1970 as tensions rose between India and Pakistan. The retreat ceremony commenced in 1972 after the Indo-Pak War.
We were all seated in the Amphitheatre to witness the ceremony. On the Indian side there was no segregation of. men and women. The only concern was the glare of the setting sun as we face Westwards.
On the Pakistan side, there were separate enclosures for men and women. The only commonality was most women and men including the Rangers – all wore Salwar Kameez.
As the seats were getting filled up, the audio systems from both sides begun belching out ‘patriotic’ songs with as much volume they could muster. At the auspicious time of 5 PM, the soldiers from both sides ‘enacted’ their choreographed drills.
They marched ‘Goose Stepping’, throwing their legs as high as they could. This was a form of extreme marching held by German, Prussian, and Russian military to be an ultimate display of the unbreakable will and discipline of its soldiers. Most modern armies have done away with this ‘facist’ approach to marching as being extreme. Only a few countries use it as a powerful display of military discipline.
Foot drill is a fundamental activity of the military and is practised regularly during initial military training. Foot drill involves marching with an exaggerated heel strike, and regimented manoeuvres performed while marching and standing characterised by an exaggerated stamping of one foot into the ground.
The soldiers were wearing leather soled boots with heavy metal attached to them. It made ‘metallic’ sound when they came in contact with the concrete floor every time the a soldier stamped his foot, that too much higher than needed.
The soldiers from both the sides pose showing their aggression and fearlessness. They widen their chests, twirl their mustaches, thrust open their eyeballs, and what not – all to invite applause and cheers from the audience on either side.
After enacting all these choreographed caricature of a drill, soldiers cross the white line to come to the other country and form a beautiful cross X with the flag threads. Both the flags are held together at the junction and then are brought down at speed and folded neatly. Throughout the ceremony sloganeering and clapping many a times reached frenzied levels. The only saving grace during the entire routine was the exchanges of sly smiles between the soldiers of both nations.
The question here is as whether we need such exaggerated drills to incite national passion and fervour among the citizens? How long can a country sustain such a fervour? What about the soldiers who are enacting this routine? Have you considered the unwanted physical and mental stress they undergo?
High levels of bone strain caused by such exaggerated drills will surely result in stress fracture. It may also cause micro-damage to bones. Digging down of heels, especially with the foot raised over the heads may cause severe strain to the neck and spine and also brain damage. These soldiers may also end up with joint pains, migraine and headaches
Ultimately who cares? The show must go on.