Wagah is a village 30km west of Amritsar, straddling the border between India and Pakistan. It’s the only open road crossing between the two countries. Every evening, the armed forces on both sides simultaneously perform an elaborate gate-closing and flag-lowering ceremony, which has become something of a spectacle for both Indians and tourists.
I arrive there at about 4.30pm, after the experience in the spiritual obstacle course that is the Mata Temple. I am directed by the guards to bypass the long Indian queue and go straight into the VIPs’ and foreigners’ stand, which is supposed to provide a better view. Except that, in the foreigners’ stand, a number of men – all of whom are tall enough to see everything from a seated position – seem intent on standing, so that they can record useless, unwatchable videos of everything, ensuring meanwhile that neither they, nor anyone behind them, sees any of the proceedings with their own eyes.
One of the men is bearded and dressed exactly like a Pakistani or Afghan peasant. Though I can’t imagine the terrorism-conscious Border Security Force would have let him into the stands with one of those passports, I still mentally size up his dishdash for a concealed suicide vest. Another is a stern-faced Uri Geller lookalike in a Reebok wicking sports t-shirt, whose crocodile face never cracks from its cold, dead robotic mask as he records the crowds staring back at him in annoyance. Luckily the BSF soldiers on spectator-herding duty are proactive about getting people to sit back down. Even the man wearing a lace tea cosy on his head, who is the most determined to stay on his feet, gives in to a sustained whistle blast and a finger pointed directly at him.
The stands are all full and the Indians are ready to party. A man in a white, orange and green tracksuit, whom I presume is a national athletic celebrity, comes out with a microphone and whips them up into even more of a fever. Dozens of youngsters rush from the stands and form a queue. They are given Indian flags and take turns running up and down the road to the border gate, to the ecstatic cheers of the crowd. After 20 minutes or so of this, with the enthusiasm never once waning, the flags are given to some teenage boys to take to the top of the stands and wave around.
Loudspeakers start playing popular Indian songs, and hundreds of people of all ages, from little boys in school uniform, to middle-aged mothers, join in a spontaneous group bangra dance. It’s a patriotic flash mob.
Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, the dirty, subdued group of Pakistani spectators sit waiting. They haven’t even been able to fill half their stands, and this is a Thursday, traditionally Muslim party night. They raise a token cheer at one point when a fat man waddles down the road with the Pakistan flag, but mostly their sit, huddled, while the gleeful celebrations continue on our side of the gate.
The road is cleared of dancers, and the ceremony proper begins. The sportsman holds up the microphone to the captain of the guard, who intones his words of command, droning the first part for at least 30 seconds each time, in a competitive display of lung capacity against his opposite number in Pakistan, who does the same. When he snaps the second half of the the command, his men spasm into action, kicking their legs so high that their boots touch the ornamental fans of their turbans, and then briskly marching up to the gate.
I can usually make out the basic narrative elements of foreign military parades, but this is pretty incomprehensible. Soldiers march up to the gate, away, back again, in pairs or alone, as the gates are variously opened, slammed shut, bounce open a bit and are restrained and pulled back shut, again and again, for no apparent purpose.
Looking past the theatrics, the drill is not actually very impressive. They can call a command for a lung-busting 30 seconds, and high-kick their own headdress off, but five men can’t keep time with each other in a quick march along 50m of road, and their “at ease” is so easy they might have been slouching around, chatting at a bus stop.
Everything the BSF soldiers do is mirrored by their black-uniformed but otherwise identical counterparts in Pakistan. Their crowd raises the requisite patriotic cheers too, but I wonder if they know, in their heart of hearts, that their country is measurably worse in every way.
The gate is closed for the final time and the ceremony is over. On our side, people mill around, still buzzing with excitement. Mounted on the top of the archway between the stands, a picture of a grinning Gandhi beams down at the happy crowd.
Opposite, the handful of Pakistani spectators slink away. Facing Gandhi, a po-faced portrait of Muhammad Ali Jinnah, Father of the Nation, gazes down at the miserable little nation he fathered.