On Thursday, India and Pakistan held their first high-level talks since the November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which India blames on
Pakistani-based militants. As expected, the meeting produced no breakthroughs and some sniping, a reflection of the tensions between these
Sometimes, as is evident in Wagah, those strains take on comic overtones.
It's late afternoon. And for the last 63 years, that's meant one thing here: "retreat ceremony" time.
Every day, a flag-lowering ceremony takes place at Wagah Border, which connects India and
Pakistan via the Grand Trunk Road. The border, the only official land crossing-point between the two countries, separates Amritsar, India and Lahore,
The daily ceremony, start at 4:30 in India, 4:00 in Pakistan.
The crowds in India also tend to be bigger and livelier, befitting the nation's sevenfold population advantage over its neighbor. On a recent
weekday, there were about 3,000 people on the Indian side, compared with 400 or so for Pakistan. As the ceremony's kickoff approaches, thousands of
Indian tourists, babies in tow, popcorn and balloons in hand, dash a quarter of a mile from the parking lot to tiered bleachers a few feet from the
historic divide. As the stands fill, the crowd finds its voice, releasing cries of "Long live India!" and other cheers. Fists pump the air. Girls
scream. Cameras flash. These are answered almost immediately by the other side. "Pakistan is my life!" and "Allah, Allah!" ring back, not as loud,
but no less spirited.
Each day, the 45-minute ceremony involves a carefully choreographed “standoff” between Indian and Pakistani soldiers, ending “in the lowering of
both flags and the slamming of the border gates.”which connects India and Pakistan via the Grand Trunk Road. The border, the only official land
crossing-point between the two countries, separates Amritsar, India and Lahore, Pakistan.
Trumpets sound and several extremely tall soldiers simultaneously appear on their respective sides of the divide, essentially a 250-yard-long
courtyard flanked by seating between twin arches. Each of the prancing units sports crisp uniforms: black and green for Pakistan, orange, red and
khaki for India. They march about, epitomes of machismo. Both countries choose their finest, as tall, intimidating and, in Pakistan's mustachioed
case, hirsute as possible.
The daily Wagah event is a popular tourist attraction, but rather than it being a show of hostility between the two nations, an atmosphere of jovial
patriotism coexists on both sides. The ceremony is an exhibition of force mixed with cooperation, reminiscent more of dance battles than military
After nearly 30 minutes, it's time for the finale. The guards meet in the small no-man's land and lower, until tomorrow, their flags.
Suddenly everything shifts from hyperactive to super-slow-mo -- part of a faceoff to see whose flag "retreats" first.
An officer from each side then briskly shakes hands with his counterpart before the crews dart back to home territory and slam shut the gates for the
Some see the ceremony as a metaphor for the two nations' complex relationship, at once threatening, menacing, potentially deadly but also
melodramatic and, at times, choreographed. The two border units work closely to synchronize their moves and prevent one side from kicking the other,
which might provoke a real fight.
The higher the ceremonial kicks, the more bitter relations tend to be. And during times of particular strain, both sides have added taunts,
stare-downs and chest thumping.
"We're now in the process of toning down some of the more aggressive gestures," such as glaring, said an officer with India's Border Security
There's enormous curiosity about "the others" on the part of those on either side of a border that encapsulates bloodshed, family separations and
the pain of division. At the end of the ceremony, spectators throng the fence to get a peek at neighbors who look so much like themselves. Some wave.
Many just stare.
Six decades of separation, limited people-to-people contact and mistrust whipped up by politicians have left their mark on average Ahmeds and Guptas,
who sometimes act as though the other folks are from another planet.
"So you've just come from India?" a taxi driver asks a traveler all of 15 feet into Pakistan. "What's the weather like over there?"
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