Against the backdrop of the setting sun, a crowd of 5,000 gathers along a remote country road to witness an event part circus, part nationalistic...
WAGAH, ON THE INDIA-PAKISTAN BORDER Against the backdrop of the setting sun, a crowd of 5,000 gathers along a remote country road to witness an event part circus, part nationalistic ritual but all spectacle.
Nowhere do flags symbolize the hopes and dreams of nations more than here, at the only border crossing between India and Pakistan, rivals in everything from cricket to nuclear arms.
In a ceremony that takes place every day at sunset, soldiers from each side lower their nations’ flags in mirror-image displays of high-step marching and jingoistic posturing that routinely draw thousands of onlookers to Wagah, a border post located on both sides of the Pakistan-India line.
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The meticulously choreographed tête-à-tête embodies the similarities and the fundamental difference between Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan.
It also embodies the often-surreal nature of the India-Pakistan dispute, with soldiers friendly during the daytime turning out at sunset to rattle their sabers in ostentatious displays of chest-pounding fervor.
On a recent evening, cheers rained down from the packed, stadium-style stands along the road on the Indian side, as celebrants danced to the rousing beats of Punjabi pop music pumping from large loudspeakers. Schoolchildren lined the curbs, sipping Pepsi and munching salty snacks. Turbaned men waved small orange, white and green Indian flags emblazoned with “I love my India,” in bold capital letters.
Across the border, a considerably smaller crowd of Pakistanis chanted patriotic slogans and waved versions of their own flag, a white star and crescent moon on a field of green.
“I’ll continue shouting slogans for Pakistan until I die,” said Muhammad Shafiq, 26, a baker who has been coming to the ceremony for six years. “I do this for the sake of my country.”
Pakistanis and Indians alike take pride in even small differences between the near-identical processions.
“The Indian soldiers looked perfect when they kicked their feet up to head-level as they marched,” said Ramesh Kumar, a tourist from central India, adding that in his opinion, the Indians’ multicolored uniforms looked better than the black tunics worn by the Pakistanis.
Several minutes before, a half-dozen soldiers from each side brawny, 6-foot-plus men in ceremonial uniforms and turbans topped with starched, fanlike combs marched to the center of the road about 30 yards from the border and stood frozen at attention. Their commanders, facing them, bellowed commands the Indian side in Hindi and the Pakistani side in Urdu.
A single guard from each country high-stepped to each gate arms swinging frantically, boots pounding emphatically as the crowds of their countrymen applauded.
The Indian soldier violently flung open a gate to reach his flag as his counterpart on the Pakistani side shoved open sliding doors on his side. The two men shared a robotic handshake before taking positions under their respective flags, all the while glowering at each other across the so-called “zero line.”
The rest of the men followed, one at a time. Each man stopped 10 feet short of his side’s gate and struck a defiant pose in the direction of the other country hands at hips, chest puffed out, chin raised before taking his position near the mouth of the gate.
Each flag descended slowly, so as not to dip below the other on its way down.
Then, flags safely stowed away, spectators on the both sides rushed into the roadway, cheerfully posing for photographs with the soldiers, some of whom signed autographs.
Some onlookers went directly to the border, placing one foot in each country as friends took snapshots.
The Pakistani viewing podium and a small terrace below it can hold about 2,000 people, officials said. On a good day, they added, the Pakistani and Indian crowds are about the same.
The Pakistani throng’s chants of “God is great,” and “Long live Pakistan” were audible against the cries of “Hail India” and “Long Live Hindustan” from the other side.
The flag ceremony was first performed shortly after India’s independence from Britain and its division into two countries in 1947. The British set aside Pakistan for Muslims and India was established as a multi-religious country with a secular constitution.
The two countries share many similarities, including language. Though written in different scripts, the spoken forms of Hindi and Urdu are similar enough to be understood in both countries.
“At first it may seem a bit funny, like something just done for the tourists. Then you realize it’s also very nationalistic,” said Ward Van Heddeghem, a Belgian tourist in his late 20s. “It doesn’t feel like real, hard politics. They wouldn’t be doing this if they didn’t have any neighborly feelings.”
Alam Zeb, a Pakistani Ranger who starts the ceremony with the traditional handshake, said relations between soldiers were cordial.
“We are friendly,” he said. “It’s the same every day, shaking hands and so on. It feels completely normal.”
With a mournful look, another Pakistani soldier said the gate-slamming reminded him of the human toll of 1947 partition.
“I feel most sorry for the people who have relatives on either side of the line,” he said. “Especially in this region, we’re the same people, with the same language.”