Wagah is the only functioning border crossing between India and Pakistan. Every day Indians and Pakistanis travel miles to watch the pageantry at the sunset closing ceremony, and to shout at each other.
We visited the Indian side some five years ago. A fielder with a better cricket arm than I could have easily hit the Pakistanis sitting in the grandstand facing ours. Pakistan looked scary: the men, and it was only men, wore uniform shalwar kameez as if to emphasise their difference. The atmosphere on the Indian side was jovial compared to the ferocious cries from the Pakistan side: “Allah uh Akhba!”
Visiting the Pakistan side today we found the gates of the border had obscured the view into Pakistan. Lower down men, women and children dressed in bright colours shared soda and popcorn and danced about just like the Indians. From without Pakistan seems scary and unsafe – you only get to see the happy, human side once you visit. Metaphor, much.
Just as in India, we got VIP seats on account of us being very white people. This gave us an exceptional view of the action. Guards prancing about, clicking heals and kicking their feet in the air like they’re auditioning for the Ministry of Silly Walks. There’s a brief handshake between the Indian and Pakistani guards, giving away that this is actually a carefully, and bilaterally, choreographed performance, but otherwise it’s all pomp and aggression. There’s so much pomp and ceremony that it’s hard to believe the guards don’t burst out laughing once in a while. We certainly did, often. You probably will too, watching the video below:
For all the crowds are jovial there is an unbridled nationalism about the spectacle which brings out a bit of a nasty streak. Indians yell Hindustan Jinjabad – long live the land of the Hindus. They could alternatively be shouting “our GDP per capita is about 20% greater than yours but still significantly behind the global average”. Pakistanis yell Allah uh Akhba – God is great. They’re from an Islamic Republic, after all. Both sides have mascots to rile up the crowd. Pakistan’s was unfortunately reminiscent of duff man.
And this stuff is not just empty nationalism. Pakistan and India have had various levels of hostility towards each other (up to and including war) since partition in 1947. Recent events continue the roller coaster of hot and cold diplomatic relations. The new Indian PM, Modi, invited his Pakistani counterpart to his swearing in. Negotiations over the disputed territory of Kashmir were scheduled. But when the Pakistani High Commissioner to New Delhi met with Kashmiri separatists – which Pakistan considers business as usual – India called off the talks. This strikes me as counterproductive on India’s part. But marginally more reasonable than rejecting an ambassador because they also make representations to a country you don’t like much.