Sher Khan

Like every Pakistani, I was shattered by the wanton loss of innocent life and the inflicting of injuries on scores of people leaving the venue of the Flag Lowering Ceremony at the Pakistan-India Border, Wagah, late in the evening of 2 November, 2014. A suicide bomber struck the sea of homebound observers as they were exiting the venue with devastating effect. This was not the first suicide bomber to have targeted innocent civilians, and nor will he be the last. Terrorism, including suicide bombing, has become the only growth industry in this country, even as all other indicators seem to be in a nose-dive; be it the economy, law and order, social indicators, governance etc. You name it, and we see them all hurtling downhill at breakneck speed.  Except for the business of violence. How, in the space of less than a second, were so many families destroyed, so many lives extinguished? When will this madness end?  Did we bring it upon ourselves due to the follies of our leaders, past and present? Have the chickens come home to roost? Successive governments avow their “determination” to root out this evil. While wishing them success in their noble intentions, one is tempted to ask, “What is your game plan, really? Do you have what it takes to assault this hydra-headed monster when you are mired in the battle for your own political survival? Do you have staying power for the long struggle ahead, bound to last so many years?

Morning television broadcasts on 3rd November stated that there would not be any such ceremonies for three days; yet that very evening, the Lahore Corps Commander attended the ceremony in the company of the DG Rangers. This was as it should be; we needed to show whoever was behind the dastardly attack that we would not be cowed down that easily.

Now to the ceremony itself, which has been going on in its present orchestrated and choreographed form for many years. The highly exaggerated, robotic drill movements of the soldiers of the Pakistan Rangers and the Indian Border Security Force are not to be found in any drill manual anywhere in the world. To the entertainment-starved, cheering crowds who know no better, the ceremony is worth giving an arm and a leg for. However, soldiers of the old school of thought who know better and have been fortunate enough to see military ceremonies in other parts of the world can only weep at the inane, mechanical, toy-like, robotic movements of “sworn enemies” as they go through this pantomime, this theatre of the absurd, as they shake hands and then glower at each other in mock animosity (when the show is over, they probably exchange notes and jokes over cups of tea and samosas).

Retreat, or the lowering of the flag at sunset, is to be observed with immense solemnity and dignity. As cadets at the Pakistan Military Academy, and later as young officers, we were required to stand silently at attention when the Retreat was sounded by the trumpeter as he played the Last Post. Sadly, to an old soldier, such good traditions have gone with the wind, to borrow a cinematic phrase. Is it too late to infuse some dignity and solemnity into the Retreat at Wagah Border as the Pakistan flag is lowered at dusk? I hope not.

One of the most dignified ceremonies I have seen is the changing of the guard at Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow. Every two hours, the new guards start goose-stepping out from the direction of St. Basil’s Cathedral at a slow, deliberate and dignified pace. On reaching the entrance to the mausoleum they relieve the old guards who go to St. Basil’s in a similar manner. Not a single word of command is uttered. The large crowds gathered to see the ceremony look on in pin drop silence. We, supposedly a God-fearing people, could learn something about dignity from a “godless” nation.

    The writer is a retired brigadier.