When I went to Wagah with a group of friends, I knew nothing about Wagah and wondered what it was about a border gate that could prompt my Indian friends into saying that this was a place we should visit. But I realized it might be the nearest I would ever get to Pakistan and, because we had a friend in the Indian army able to get us tickets for VIP seating, we all looked forward to going.
A border crossing between India and Pakistan
National Highway 1 (NH1) crosses the border between Pakistan and India at Wagah, an old village that was bisected by the border created in 1947, and lies between Amritsar India, and Lahore, Pakistan. I found it surprising that the Wagah crossing is now the only road crossing along the entire border from India into Pakistan with the exception of a small post in Kashmir.
Obviously, the Wagah crossing is important for that reason alone, but it has also taken on a symbolic significance in the years since Partition. It is where India and Pakistan officially interact each day. As the years have passed, the rituals surrounding the daily closing of the gates have grown into a ceremonial occasion of unusual proportions, attended by thousands from both sides.
Concrete “bleachers” packed with spectators
Arriving in Wagah, you park about a half mile from the border and walk the last stretch, passing through security checks as you go. There was already a long line when we got there but it was moving quickly. Once through the last check, we made our way to the VIP section and found our seats along the highway.
I was surprised at what I saw. On both sides of the border were permanent, concrete “bleachers” packed with spectators. There must have been 5000 on the Indian side and another 3000 on the Pakistani side. Flags fluttered in the breeze: the green crescent and star on white for Pakistan and the familiar saffron, green and white tricolor of India. A.R. Rahman’s anthem from Slumdog Millionaire blared from the loudspeakers as hawkers made their way through the crowds selling tourist guides.
Down on the roadway there were groups of school kids running back and forth to the gate with big Indian flags, handing them off like batons to the next kid waiting in line. I imagined similar scenes on the Pakistani side.
About an hour before the gates closed at sunset, a guy came out of the Border Patrol office, grabbed a microphone and began leading the crowd in cheers. “Bharata Mata Ki!” and back from the crowd would come “Jai!” Louder and louder. “Hindustan!” and the crowd would reply “Zindabad!” Pretty soon, you could hear from the other side of the fence, “Pakistan! Zindabad!” “Pakistan! Zindabad!” It was like dueling crowds at a big football game. The patrolman waved his arms to encourage the crowd, exhorting it further, directing the cheers toward the Pakistanis. Back and forth it went, everyone having a great time. Flags waving, the crowd yelling, music blaring, the red sun setting slowly.
A choreographed routine
Finally, a squad of Border Patrolmen marched out of their barracks and took position at the roadside. They looked magnificent, dressed in khaki, polished boots with leggings, and each sporting an impressive red headdress that reminded me of a rooster’s comb.
On signal, two smartly uniformed lady guards started the ceremony by quickly marching along the roadway to the gate where they took up position, left and right. They were followed by the male guards, aggressively goose-stepping in pairs to the cheers of the crowd until they reached the gate where they were met by their counterparts from the Pakistani side, dressed in black. Each guard was exactly of the same physique, well conditioned and about six feet tall with a mustache. They had all been chosen to match.
Once at the gate, the guards marched back and forth in sync with the Pakistanis. They had their routine down and had obviously choreographed the whole thing with the fellows on the other side of the border. After about fifteen minutes of back and forth marching at the gate, the bugles blew and the flags were lowered and furled, exactly at the same pace for each country. The gates then closed, the patrol marched back to their barracks, and the show ended. Everyone left happy as they made their way to the chaos of the parking lots.
“They really are brothers and sisters”
Indians love ceremonies and really do them well. They have a knack for them and know how to have fun. No American soldier could ever dress like those border guys and keep a straight face, but it looked just right on them.
Once again, I noted the patriotism of ordinary Indians. I would guess the Pakistanis are the same and as I was leaving, a thought struck me forcefully, “These really are the same people on both sides of the gate! A line and a fence have come between them but underneath all the politics and discord, they really are brothers and sisters.” Dynasties and empires with their borders have come and gone here for thousands of years. Sooner or later, this one too will be gone and the people will be reunited again.