The Border Crossing At Wagah

One rarely speaks of India or Pakistan without invoking their intractable rivalry and infamously tense relationship. The two nations are almost synonymous for bellicose, distrust, and – even at the best of times – overwrought relations. They’ve fought several wars, engage numerous skirmishes and indirect clashes, and been at the brink of nuclear war as recently as 2001. Much of this hostility and mutual suspicion emerges from a central cause: a territorial dispute over Jammu and Kashmir, parts of which are held between each country but claimed in their entirety by both.

The village of Wagah is located between Lahore and Amristar. Note the disputed territory.

What is most tragic is that both nations share so much in terms of culture, history, language, and religion, and even maintain relatively robust economic links, yet none of these factors help dilute the posturing over land and pride (although one could argue, as I have, that such similarities and cultural exchanges have in the past, and to this day, lessened the chances of a larger-scale conflict). Needless to say, the Mumbai bomb attacks that occurred in 2008, perpetrated by Pakistan-linked terrorists, has only made the already dim prospects for peace and a thawing of relations even darker – though presumably, things are better than they seem lately, thanks to cooler heads prevailing.

Anyway, I unfortunately don’t have much time to get into the finer details of this issue, or its future implications. Rather, I wanted to share a fascinating, little-known event that occurs regularly in the context of all this quarreling. It fondly reminds me of our human capacity to make light of even the most dire of circumstances.

Given what I’ve established about this conflict, one could imagine India and Pakistan don’t share a very open and accommodating border. In fact, there is only one road border crossing between the two countries, in the village of Wagah, which is itself split between an Indian eastern half and a Pakistani western one.

As the only place where the two nations’ troops regularly interact in a relatively open and relaxed environment, it has become the site of a ceremonial “lowering of the flags” ritual at sunset, which is like no other between any other countries in the world, much less two barely in a state of war at times. The exchange comprises I could only describe as a combination of pep rally, pantomime, cockerel-like posturing, and you-got-served-style street dancing. You literally have to see it to believe it.

From the Indian Side:

From the Pakistani Side:

Pretty dramatic stuff. This ceremony has been going on since 1959, even through all the wars and heightened periods of tensions. It hardly looks like the sort of exchange you’d expect from two nations commonly held to be mortal enemies. There is a light-hearted, even playful attitude about it, like a match between two sports teams. Despite some apparent aggression and pomp, the the troops involved seem like they’re getting into it more out of pride and sport than any maliciousness. The cheering and festive audience certainly helps bolster that impression.

Let's get ready to rumble.

In addition to this unique event, Wagah has also been the site of candlelight vigils celebrating the Independence days of both nations (August 14th for Pakistan and 15th  for India) as well as to show solidarity for peace and reconciliation. Since first emerging in 2001, it’s occurred several times in subsequent years. And aside from such displays, there have been substantial developments as well, such as the opening up of trade through the border, which has amounted to billions of dollars passing through just this little town a little. Such trade has persisted even despite the highs and lows of the conflict. Unsurprisingly, the areas is also being touted by both sides, especially India, as a tourist destination.

Between such potential mutually beneficial ties, and the spirited and well-meaning exchanges between the people of both sides, I can’t help but hold a glimmer of hope that in spite of all the vitriol seen on the political and international stage, the average person in both nations wants nothing to do with war. Maybe it’s a lot to take away from the “world’s silliest border,” as it’s called, but I can’t help but feel hope when I see the human side to these things.

On an interesting note, following bilateral talks last year, the two countries agreed to tone-down the exchange and phase it out entirely. Apparently, soldiers on each side complained of sore knees and feet from all the goosestepping and performing everyday.

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