Monday, November 29, 2010


At the height of the British Raj, North India extended from the Bay of Bengal to beyond the Kyber Pass, encompassing a vast swath of territory that had been ruled by a long succession of dynasties, sultanates, and emperors. Because the mountains block the north and deserts are to the southwest, and because the flow of the Ganges is to the east, the natural movement of peoples has been in an east/west direction. This was so for the British too. They settled first in Calcutta and from there, gradually extended their control over the fragmented kingdoms and princely states westward up the Ganges until they reached Afghanistan.

People and trade naturally flowed in an east/west direction in North India, so it is no surprise that well worn routes were in place long before the arrival of the British. Empires demand decent roads, so the British set themselves the task of improving upon what they found already in place, establishing the Grand Trunk Road (GTR) as an artery of commerce and imperial communication. It extended from Bengal to the western reaches of what is now Pakistan and you can travel this same route today as part of the Indian National Highway system.

From Amritsar in Punjab, the GTR headed west to Lahore in Pakistan and is known now as National Highway 1 (NH1). It crosses the border at Wagah, an old village that was bisected by the border created in 1947. I found it surprising that this is now the only road crossing along the entire border from India into Pakistan with the exception of a small post in Kashmir. And, up until a few years ago, all cargo traveling across the border had to be unloaded on one side, carried across the border by an army of porters, and then reloaded onto trucks once again on the other side. 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 and 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.

I went to Wagah with a group of friends on a return trip to Amritsar from Dharamasala. I knew nothing about Wagah and wondered what it was about a border gate that could prompt my Indian friends into saying this was a place we should visit. 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.

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 five thousand on the Indian side and another three thousand 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. When the chorus line came, the entire crowd shouted in unison, Jai Ho! The music got so lively that before long a couple hundred girls were dancing en masse in the roadway, doing those moves you see in Bollywood films. Are girls are allowed to dance in Pakistan? I didn’t see any.

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 I 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, girls dancing, the red sun setting slowly.

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 quick marching along the roadway to the gate where they took up position, left and right. These 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 foot 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. I was told recently that the guards had mutually agreed not long ago to tone down their previous overly aggressive displays so as to give a more peaceful message to the crowd, and for the very practical reason that their aggressive goose-stepping had been causing too many foot and leg injuries. The daily stomping of their feet on the hard pavement had put too many of them out of commission.

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.

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. Although they weren’t at this event, if you ever have a chance to view the guardsmen who march with their camels or see a parade where they dress up the elephants, take the opportunity and go. It’s quite a spectacle.

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.