The Making of the Attari-Wagah Border
The word ‘border’ is probably the most emotionally loaded term in the context of India-Pakistan relations. Yet that historic stretch of boundary which partitioned India in the Punjab province was initially no more than a humble line marked by a few whitewashed drums and stones hastily assembled by the army officers tasked with patrolling this politically inflammable territory.
The year was 1947 and Sir Cyril Radcliffe, the British lawyer entrusted with drawing the line that separated India and Pakistan in the Punjab province, couldn’t have been in a greater hurry to complete the task and leave the country. He made no secret of his impatience with the Indian climate and of his eagerness to turn his back on India.
Radcliffe wasn’t in India long anyway. He had been given just five weeks to decide on this historic international border, and he left as soon as he could, on 15th August 1947, India’s Independence Day. Thus, in the flurry of activity in the run-up to D-Day, the line he drew remained only on paper. It also didn’t specify where India ended and Pakistan began.
Moreover, the entire exercise had been undertaken in such haste that the Indian and Pakistani sides were given only hours to study copies of the Radcliffe Award before it was published and took effect on 17th August 1947, two days after Partition.
It must be learned that the split of the former British province of Punjab between the newly formed dominions meant a large scale migration of Muslims from India and Hindu-Sikhs from Pakistan to their new ‘homes’ and their new destinations. Around, 6.5 million Muslims moved from East Punjab to West Punjab, and 4.7 million Hindus and Sikhs moved from West Punjab to East Punjab. However, this huge migration was complemented by several instances of communal violence and the large-scale genocide of people.
Renowned historian VN Datta mentions in his book Amritsar: Past and Present (Municipal Committee, Amritsar – 1967) that during those days Sardar Patel, the senior Congress leader visited Amritsar and gave an emotional speech to people to stop communal conflicts. Similar speeches and negotiations were been done in the Pakistan side too. Soon the violence reduced, but neither of the governments on both sides tried to either provide a systematic migration or implement the Radcliffe Line out of paper, practically on the ground, at least till for the next few months.
A Military Officer’s Struggle
Cut to 8th October 1947 when Brigadier Mohindar Singh Chopra was told to take command of the 123 Indian Infantry Brigade in Amritsar that would patrol and protect the post-Partition Punjab border and defend the hundreds of miles of the turbulent frontier between the two neighbouring countries along with systemising the migration of the people who couldn’t have gone earlier amid the communal conflicts which were taking place.
Brigadier Chopra’s appointment was no random choice. Having been born in Amritsar in 1907, the army believed he would be particularly sensitised to the situation there. Moreover, he was a highly decorated officer. His was one of the first batches of the King's Commissioned Indian Officers of the Indian Army, having graduated from the Royal Military College at Sandhurst in England in 1928.
He had also served in the Persia and Iraq Force (PAI Force) and then in the Burma campaign at the height of World War II. Also, just a month before Partition, in July 1947, he had overseen security and peacekeeping during the referendum in Sylhet in Assam, after which Sylhet became a part of East Pakistan.
But it was in Amritsar that Brigadier Chopra was destined to play the most important role of his career. After retirement, he wrote a journal of all his military experiences, and the entries were compiled into a book by his son Pushpinder Singh Chopra, a noted military historian. After his father’s died in 1990, Pushpinder Singh Chopra published the book, titled 1947: A Soldier’s Story – From The Records of Maj Gen Mohindar Singh Chopra (The Military Studies Convention, New Delhi, October 1997).
Mohindar Singh Chopra, through his journal, tells the riveting story of how the foundation of the modern-day Wagah border was laid. He writes that, just like him, on the opposite side of the border, the commanding officer was Nazir Ahmad, who had served with him in the elite 6th Battalion of the army regiment, the 13th Royal Frontier Force Rifles formation, before Partition.
Whereas Chopra had been the first Indian officer to join this Royal Battalion in 1932, Ahmad joined a little later. The two became very close friends. Although during the Burma campaign of World War II, Chopra was transferred to the newly formed 123rd Indian Infantry Brigade, Ahmad stayed with the old royal brigade till Partition. After Partition, Ahmad’s 6th Royal Frontier Force Rifles was transferred to Pakistan and was reconstituted as the 1st Battalion of the new Frontier Force Regiment.
In his journal, Brigadier Chopra mentions that their task on the new border was very difficult as there were no pillars or markers on the ground to designate the line that had split the country into two. Yet both friends had been tasked with ‘defending millions of refugees’ on either side.
So Brigadier Chopra signalled his friend, now counterpart, Nazir Ahmad, and proposed that they meet on the famous Grand Trunk Road, which passed through both countries on the border where they had been stationed. The meeting took place in Wagah village on what is now the Pakistani side, and they unanimously agreed to set up a check post there. They fixed a point between the villages of Wagah and Attari that belonged to Pakistan and India respectively that would divide both countries and from where the organised evacuation could take place.
So, on 11th October 1947, both brigadiers set up a temporary ‘Wagah check-post’. This new international border was marked by a few whitewashed drums and pieces of stone, which severed the Grand Trunk Road that went across from India to Pakistan, the only road crossing between the two countries.
"Some tents were pitched on either side, two sentry boxes painted in the national colours of each country, and a swing gate to regulate the refugee traffic was erected. Two flag masts were also put up on either side and a brass plate commemorating the historic event was installed," notes Chopra in his journal, recalling the incident.
Once this new border was set, both men met again, on 21st October, now on the Indian side, in Attari village, to work out modalities for the safe evacuation of refugees and maintenance of peace along the dividing line.
Even though the First Indo-Pakistan War (1947–1948) broke out in Kashmir the very next day, on 22nd October, there was calm in the Punjab sector border range, thanks to the peacekeeping efforts of the two armies. Even the media on both sides appreciated this effort by both nations and both Brigadiers were soon promoted to the rank of Major-General by their respective countries. On the occasion, Nazir Ahmad sent a note to his friend, saying, ''We hope and pray that we both now live up to the expectations we built up that day and also that of the public.''
For the next few years, various people, who couldn’t have been migrated at the time of migration as no one actually thought about them, including immigrants like jail and hospital inmates were peacefully exchanged through this border check post, systematically and peacefully. The famous Urdu short story Toba Tek Singh written by Saadat Hasan Manto in 1955 was inspired by the events at this border check post. The story ends where an inmate of the Lahore asylum named Bishan Singh is brought to the ‘Wagah border’ to be sent to India but he refuses to walk across and dies in ‘no-man’s land’ at the Wagah check post.
Beating the Retreat Border Ceremony
As the years went by, this section of the border became more and more prominent due to regular bilateral trade that crossed through it and the international railway line nearby, that connects both countries. As a result, infrastructure at the check post was expanded and became more and more elaborate, and both countries entrusted the border’s security to specialised forces like India’s Border Security Force (BSF) and the Pakistan Rangers, respectively.
Today, the Wagah check post is a tourist attraction, drawing people from India, Pakistan and even foreign tourists to watch the colourful Beating The Retreat ceremony held before dusk every evening. Conducted jointly by the BSF and Pakistan Rangers since 1959, the ceremony is a carefully choreographed ritual, where the flags of both countries are lowered as their soldiers perform a synchronised ‘Silly Walk’.
The drill is characterised by rapid and staccato, dance-like manoeuvres, where the soldiers raise their legs as high as possible, stomp, shake their heads like puffed-up peacocks and throw killer looks at their colleagues on the other side as they march to and fro. Looking fearsome in their elaborate turbans and fanciful moustaches, they mirror each other’s goose steps, martial cries and intimidating stares, to claps and cheers of “Jai Hind!” and “Pakistan Zindabad!” from tourists of both countries.
This spectacular ceremony is so well patronised that there are seating arrangements for spectators on both sides of the check post. The soldiers who execute this ceremony are specially trained for this ritual, a symbol of both the rivalry between the two nations as well as a mark of their brotherhood and cooperation.
Naming the ‘Attari Border’
For six decades, this section of the border was popularly called the ‘Wagah Border’ by citizens of both India and Pakistan but it was only recently that the Indian government realised that Wagah village was on the Pakistan side, located as far as 1.5 km from the Joint Check Post (JCP). It was not Wagah but Attari village that lay on the India side of this international boundary, they discovered. Thus, on 8th September 2007, the Government of India officially named this stretch of the international boundary, from the prevalent name of ‘Wagah Border’ to the ‘Attari Border’.
However, the new name hasn’t stuck. Restricted largely to official documents, it is still called the ‘Wagah Border’ by citizens, tourists and even the media. Even the 300 taxis and the double-decker bus, which take tourists from Amritsar to Attari village 25 km away, use ‘Wagah’ to refer to the destination.
But more important than its name is the enormous spirit of patriotism in the hearts of tourists who visit this endpoint of their respective countries. They would perhaps be more moved if they knew that the line that separates their nations is rooted in the friendship of two army officers, who hoped that the humble border post they set up would forever remain a symbol of peace and cooperation between the two countries.
– ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Aashish Kochhar is a history enthusiast from Amritsar who studies at Jamia Millia Islamia, New Delhi.