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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

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