INDIA AND PAKISTAN’S SPECTACULAR BORDER SHOW TAKES A DARK TURN
POLITICAL TENSIONS BLIGHT A POPULAR FLAG-LOWERING CEREMONY
Skirmishes between nucleararmed neighbours India and Pakistan at the de facto border that divides the disputed Kashmir region have claimed more than 20 lives in the past few weeks: 19 Indian soldiers and at least two from Pakistan. But they have also taken an unexpected toll, about 400km further south, on what is perhaps the most idiosyncratic flag lowering-ceremony in the world. The ritual takes place every evening at the Wagah border checkpoint near the northwestern Indian city of Amritsar, the only legal road/crossing point between neighbours united until their enforced separation in 1947. In the early decades of independence, the 3000km India-Pakistan border was highly porous.
Family, cultural and business ties remained strong, and people moved across it in both directions with few restrictions. It was only after the 1965 war that the border was more aggressively patrolled. Wagah is often compared to Checkpoint Charlie in cold war Berlin, the crossing point between the Communist and western halves of a divided city. I recently went to Wagah with a visiting friend, reprising a trip first made nearly 20 years ago. The ritual was much as I remembered. Towering Indian and Pakistani soldiers with abundant facial hair and resplendent turbans strutted, stomped and glowered in a synchronised show of aggression. Every so often a high kick would bring a soldier’s foot just inches from his opposite number’s head in a militaristic pas de deux for siblings locked in a bitter dispute over their inheritance.
Finally, the soldiers standing in the narrow neutral zone lowered their respective flags — at exactly the same speed so that neither would be higher than the other — turned for a brief, firm handshake before clanging the border gates shut for the night. But much was also different. Two decades ago I watched the dusk ceremony with just a few dozen others — government officials, dedicated novelty seekers and foreign travellers, all of us sitting on simple benches that looked as though they had been erected as an afterthought. The ceremony, said to have started in the late 1950s, felt as though it was being performed for its own sake, with no thought of pleasing crowds. The ritual has turned into a tourist attraction for India’s aspiring middle class, who come to Wagah by the busload from across the country and pack themselves into new stadium seating to receive an intensive booster shot of patriotic fervour. The distinctive sounds — warlike calls, trumpets and the smack of boots on the pavement — are now preceded by Bollywood songs blasted out while people dance and cheer in the stands. Vendors sell bottled water; Border Security Force staff organise women and children to take turns rushing at the border while waving Indian flags to the roar of the crowds. From what I could see, peering at the packed stands a few hundred metres away, it appeared much the same on the Pakistani side of the border.
For all the ferocity of the ritual, the mood in the Indian stands felt like that of a sporting match. People felt passionate about their teams but the cheers were those of entertainment and spectacle.
After the ceremony, selected visitors were ushered forward to areas where they could pose with soldiers, just a few metres from Pakistanis doing the same. On both sides people took long looks across the border fence, like estranged relatives peering into the windows of each others’ homes. All this changed after India announced it had carried out counterterrorism raids in Pakistani-held territory. New Delhi barred visitors from attending the Wagah ceremony. The Indian stands reopened but the mood was reportedly dark, with Pakistanis hurling insults and stones. The two countries are usually eager consumers of each others’ films, television serials and music, but groups on both sides are now demanding restrictions on their neighbours’ cultural works. Wagah — both the checkpoint and the ceremony — is a legacy that symbolises the ties that bind despite political divisions. As hostilities rise, many on both sides are fervently hoping it will remain open rather than a no-go zone. But in this volatile family drama, nothing can be taken for granted.
Wagah-border-India-Pakistan ceremony handshake.
Wagah — both the checkpoint and the ceremony is a legacy that symbolises the ties