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Heroes Never Die: The Sundown Parade at the Wagah Border

by Urmila Chanam

The cover from enemy fire at the position he decided to occupy was scant, exposing him and his buddy to extreme danger. But he would go ahead with his plan for he had a commanding view of the enemy as well as the men he had deployed in relatively safer positions along the south bank of the Kishanganga River. There were 17 trained Lashkar-e-Toiba terrorists within range in the difficult high-altitude terrain of the Gurais Valley, but he had full faith in his men.

The sundown retreat parade by the Border Security Force soldiers from India and Pakistan. Wagah border crossing. Photo courtesy of the author.
The sundown retreat parade by the Border Security Force soldiers from India and Pakistan. Wagah border crossing. Photo courtesy of the author.
On the dark and silent night of 19th August 2011 in the Line of Control, Commando (Ghatak) Platoon Commander, Lt. Navdeep Singh, 26, did not waiver one moment before opening fire when he was certain the terrorists had entered his killing area. A third generation soldier, he was a son of the Indian Army.

His last command to his men in the eight minute gun battle that killed 12 terrorists was “I will open fire first.”

Lt. Navdeep Singh killed three terrorists with his initial burst of fire and shot dead a fourth terrorist at barely five metres. The fourth terrorist had injured his buddy, Sepoy Vijay Gajare and would have left himdead had Lt. Navdeep Singh not intervened. In doing so, a bullet pierced his head.

Another brave son of the nation fell that night on the soil of Kashmir.

-Adapted from a detailed account in an Army journal.

I grew up on the border in Jammu and Kashmir. My father was in the Indian army during the years when militancy in the valley was at its peak. Witnessing how officers and soldiers died in large numbers in the conflict, the saddest part of their sacrifice for me is that their existence remains in oblivion, for the country has never recognized their efforts. Once known for its natural beauty, which attracted tourism and revenue, Kashmir has returned to the dark ages, with mass casualties and thousands missing, in the two decades of armed conflict. In 1947 Pakistan and India became two countries during the partition of British India. Since then the two countries have fought four wars and many border skirmishes and military stand-offs.

The princely-ruled territory of Kashmir was given the choice of joining India or Pakistan during the partition. But both India and Pakistan laid claim to Kashmir, and Kashmir has become the main point of conflict between the two countries. India believes that the terrorism in Kashmir is sponsored by Pakistan and that the militants are trained on Pakistani soil, provided with arms and ammunition, and infiltrated into Indian soil to create mayhem in the valley.

The Indo-Pakistan border bears testimony to the history, pain, and trauma of the partition of British India and the creation of two independent nations out of one people. Leading politicians Mohammed Ali Jinah, leader of the All India Muslim League and Jawaharlal Nehru, leader of the Indian National Congress, believed that the partition should have resulted in peaceful relations, but instead it led to unresolved issues and conflict because the partition did not divide the nations clearly along religious lines. The Indo-Pakistani border bears testimony to the thousands of lives sacrificed to protect the sovereignty of India. Soldiers transferred to the border go there prepared to die. Their families back home either turn a blind eye or pray every day.

The Indo-Pakistan border at Wagah. Photo courtesy of the author.
The Indo-Pakistan border at Wagah. Photo courtesy of the author.

In the village of Wagah (Wahga in Pakistan), the only crossing on the Indo-Pakistan border, there is a parade at sundown. The village was split in half in 1947 with the eastern half remaining in the Republic of India and the western half in Pakistan. For the soldiers and their families from both nations, the sundown retreat parade is a mark of respect to all the martyrs. For others, the ceremony is a great patriotic occasion. Many are thrilled to be there, face to face with nationals from Pakistan. This is the one occasion that permits the common man to visit the ‘no man’s land’ and interact with people from the other side.

Hundreds of tourists flock to this historical place to see a majestic changing of the guards accompanied by the hoisting and retreat of both the Indian and the Pakistani flags. Border security forces of India and Pakistan drill with pounding long strides on the grounds as the two iron gates are shut with a final handshake.

One recent cold afternoon I made the trip to Punjab to see this ceremony. On the road between Amritsar city and Wagah, we stopped at a restaurant by the side of the highway for a quick lunch. There was a small boutique adjacent to the restaurant selling exquisite salwar kameez (traditional dress)from Pakistan. Here in this roadside cafe, we could feel both countries.

At Attari, just 3 kms from the Indo-Pakistan border, I am told this is the last Indian railway station on the rail route that connects Lahore in Pakistan with the Indian capital Delhi. Years back the train service, the Samjhauta Express, took this route all the way to Lahore in Pakistan but now it only goes until Wagah.

A massive crowd has formed at the gates to Wagah border.. We are all anxious to not be left out. We are all determined to buy our flags from the vendors at the gate, to get our face tattooed with the Indian tri-color, and to secure our seats in the stadium. If a stampede results from our enthusiasm, it would be out of feelings of patriotism and not selfishness, I think.

I sit still. I had run all the way from the gate to the stadium to sit in the front. The national song plays aloud. The soldiers of Border Security Force come marching in their sparkling armours to take their position at the gates of Wagah border. As they walked briskly past us with their head held high, they carry on their strong shoulders the faith of their countrymen. The sundown retreat has begun.

The crowd at Wagah Border gate in the evenings. Photo courtesy of the author.
The crowd at Wagah Border gate in the evenings. Photo courtesy of the author.

The atmosphere is electric, charged with patriotism. The moment is pure. I close my eyes and remember Lt. Navdeep Singh and the heroes of our nation- men who did not waiver a moment before making the ultimate sacrifice with their lives to protect us. The proceedings of the parade fade in the background and I find myself in another time, as if I am here to pay my last respects to a parting martyr.

When I shout with others slogans like ‘Vande Mataram’ I am louder than I could ever imagine myself to be. When I scream ‘Hindustan Zindabad’ it is for celebrating our heroes. This is my time to ‘give back’. My time to celebrate them.

In 2012 the President of India awarded the highest gallantry award in peace time, the Ashok Chakra, to Lt. Navdeep Singh. A proud father and a soldier himself, Lt. Joginder Singh (Retired) set aside his personal grief and received the award on behalf of his son who had been a young man when he died and could have chosen life over death had it not been for his love for the country.

On the chest of every officer passing out of the Indian Military Academy are inscribed the Chetwode Motto:

“The safety, honour and welfare of your country comes first
Always and everytime.
The honour, welfare and comfort of the men you command
Come next.
Your own ease, comfort and safety
Come last
Always and everytime.”

Soldiers like Lt. Navdeep Singh give life to these words, even in their death. And their legacy carries on, their torch is passed onto new hands, new faces, new men.

urmila chanamAbout the author: Urmila Chanam is a journalist from the small state of Manipur in north-eastern India. In 2013 she was awarded the Laadli Media and Advertising Award for Gender Sensitivity and recognized for her efforts to bring forth issues revolving around women in India. Urmila is a columnist for the leading English Daily in Manipur, the Sangai Express. In addition to The WIP, she contributes to SUN Magazine, Chilli Breeze, and Global Press Institute, along with the journals World Pulse and Voices for Human Rights. Her dream is to be the ‘Voice of the Voiceless.’

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