Insights and Analysis

At the India-Pakistan Border: History, Replayed Daily

May 27, 2009

By V. Bruce J. Tolentino

Each day, from sunup to sundown, at the Wagah border gate between India and Pakistan, the complex, intertwined, and still painful histories of these neighboring countries are replayed in scenes of joy, reunion, patriotism, belligerence, and battle.

At sunup, the border gates trundle open and travelers hurry in both directions across the border, which has divided the village of Wagah and the countries Pakistan and India since the British-mandated “Radcliffe Line,” and the bloody “Great Partition” of 1947.

There are joyous scenes of reunion where families split by politics, citizenship, or faith – yet united by blood and kinship – embrace. Some kneel to kiss the ground. Others take soil – foreign, yet treasured – into their pockets as souvenirs.

Wagah is the only official border crossing between India and Pakistan, the link between the historic, ancient cities of Lahore in Pakistan and Amritsar in India. These crossings and scenes are repeated many times throughout the day.

The number of crossings at Wagah ebb and flow with current events. In these days of civil strife in Pakistan, crossings have slowed markedly. They did, too, following the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai, which increased suspicion between the neighbors. Today, the bus service between Lahore and Amritsar, which was started in early 2006 by former President Musharraf, has been suspended. The Pakistani bus Dosti (meaning, “Friendship”), and the Indian bus Punj Aab (named for Punjab’s great rivers), are parked just behind the border on their respective sides, looking abandoned. Visa rules and approvals have been considerably tightened by both countries.

At sundown, the mini-dramas of the day climax in the lowering of the flags.

On each side of the border, the respective governments have built amphitheaters directed towards the border gates. As the sun falls lower on the horizon, the seats fill with crowds. Many are in a festive mood and wave flags. All are ready to cheer.

On the Pakistani side, the dominant colors are white and green. White from the men — most dress in shalwar kameez.  And green comes from the many Pakistani flags. The amphitheater is divided into separate areas for men and women. There are twice as many men as women. These days, only about two-thirds of the seats are taken. The men’s side is loud, the women’s somewhat subdued.

On the Indian side, the amphitheater is full, bursting. Extra seating has been arranged for, and all seats are taken. Vibrant saris in rainbow colors diffuse through the crowd. Men and women and families sit together.

On each side, several men serve as cheerleaders – warming up the crowd, urging all to raise their voices in patriotic chanting and battle cries. On the Pakistani side one hears: Allahu Akbar!  Gie Pakistan! Pakistan Illaha! And, surprisingly, Superpower  – Allah!

The Indian crowd roars back – Hail Hindustan!, Hail Mother India!, We salute you, Mother!

Then, each country’s border guards emerge from their quarters to shouts of admiration and loud applause. The guards are dressed in patriotic attire, and armed. All of them seem to be in their prime: tall, athletic, handsome, and fierce. They keep their gazes on the opposing guards – alert and ready to do battle.

Their uniforms seem similar, apart from color and trim. The Pakistani guards, drawn from the Pakistan Rangers, are in crisp black uniforms with red trim. Their turbans bear black fans, rising to make them look even taller. The Indian Border Security Forces wear starched khaki uniforms, with white and red trim, and turbans with fans in gold and red, rising like inflamed hackles. And, even in the still-hot afternoon sun, both guards wear colorful silk kerchiefs – bands of black, gold and red for India, and checks of maroon and white for the Pakistani Rangers.

Then, simultaneously, the guards from each side launch repeated fusillades of choreographed marching and gestures. Aggressively, they rush the border, furiously stamping their feet, glaring and snorting at their foes. They stop – inches from one another, never crossing the border – raise their arms to shoulder height and display thumbs pointed downward, dismissing the other. Excitement and tension among the crowds repeatedly builds and swells, erupting in applause for their respective national warriors.

The marching flourishes on each side are displays of drama. At several points, the Pakistani Rangers suddenly stop, and, ramrod-straight, they stare across to India, while ever so slowly, they raise both fists, into almost superhero poses. They look magnificent, and the Pakistani crowd goes wild.

The marching displays end with the briefest of a handshake over the border between the senior officers of the guards. Then, as the sun sets, flags are lowered, then snatched from the flagpoles and meticulously folded. Finally, with a martial air, they are carefully carried to secure quarters.

And once more, the gates that divide India and Pakistan clang shut for the night.

Bruce Tolentino is The Asia Foundation’s Chief Economist and can be reached at [email protected]. He just returned to San Francisco from Pakistan, where he was working for several weeks.

Related locations: Pakistan
Related programs: Conflict and Fragile Conditions


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