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Letter from India: High drama at the Indo-Pak border

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, April 12, 2010 - Dirt, billowing in from the dry windswept fields on either side of the road, coats the condensation on the proffered water bottle that has appeared at my side. The insistent vendor – a kid not quite at puberty – tries to force the bottle into my hand before moving on to perhaps more willing customers, shouting his mantra of “Water bottle! Fifteen rupees!”

Low-slung buildings and vendors’ carts line the road with an eclectic cornucopia of goods: popcorn, handicrafts, fruit, DVDs, sweets. Waiting rickshaw drivers wipe down their vehicles with a cloth that only redistributes the thin layer of dust in new patterns, an ineffectual but perhaps meditative activity to keep busy. And the tourists pour into the village by the thousands. Mothers scold their children for getting separated; young couples walk hand-in-hand; tourist groups disembark from buses, their guides slowly herding them through the heat, easy targets for aggressive salesmen and their young, water-hawking assistants.

This is the scene in the tiny rural community of Wagah in India’s northwestern state of Punjab. It also happens to be the only official land crossing-point between India and Pakistan, two countries with a rancorous history of hostilities and on the brink of nuclear war less than 10 years ago.

The Dominion of Pakistan (which later became the current countries of the Islamic Republic of Pakistan and the People’s Republic of Bangladesh) and the Union of India (which later became the modern day Republic of India) emerged from the dissolution of British India in 1947. But India and Pakistan have fought four wars since then. In 2001-02 both states bristled on the edge of war once again, this time over the disputed territory of Kashmir, and the rest of the world held its breath against the very real possibility of nuclear warfare between the two South Asian enemies.

It is to witness how two such bitter enemies face each other across a common border that prompts my visit to Wagah, a place that in the past was known as South Asia’s Berlin Wall. I set off from the Indian city of Amritsar an hour beforehand, rattling along in a rickshaw for the 30 kilometer ride to the border. The rickshaw motor spits and sputters, and enormous tourist buses, honking SUVs, and competing rickshaws roar past us, sweeping air and dirt in through the open sides of the vehicle. The chai stalls on the side of the road thin and eventually disappear, replaced by freshly built restaurants and hotels.

This is the first evidence I see of the decision made in 2008 by India and Pakistan to promote cross-border trade as a confidence-building measure. India has committed millions of rupees to tourism facilities around Wagah, capitalizing on the thousands of tourists who come to see the border closing ceremony each day.

As a tourist attraction it has grown to such proportions that soldiers stop all cross border traffic well in advance of the ceremony to properly prepare. I met two foreign bicyclists headed to Pakistan who glumly explained to me that they had to stay the night in a hotel on the Indian side of the border; they reached the crossing point when ceremony preparations had already begun.

Only a kilometer or two away from the border, an empty water amusement park with winding slides materializes out of the dusty fields, silent and shimmering with its newness. This is all the more remarkable considering the water shortage in this region of India; some studies forecast that the Indian state of Punjab will completely deplete its groundwater through overconsumption within 15 to 20 years.

The rickshaw rolls to a stop in Wagah, next to the rows of SUVs and tour buses. I slip into the continuous stream of people filing through the security gate. The guards at security are Indian, but at heights of at least 6 feet, they would tower over any Indians I have seen in the past five months. With their red headdresses resembling freshly dyed Mohawks, they loom a foot taller.

I continue beyond security to the border crossing itself, comprised of a few meters of neutral territory separating two large iron gates with the Indian and Pakistani flags flapping in the breeze next to their respective gates. But this is not the Spartan, somber scene I had imagined.

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Stadium seating tiers up several levels to provide nearly 8,000 spectators an unobstructed view of the daily border-closing ceremonies. I can see a similar seating arrangement behind the Pakistani gate.

Music thunders from speakers above the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) office. Punjabi music, known for its infectious rhythm and ability to set off a party, thumps out a beat for tourists on the Indian side. A group of spectators leave their seats in the stands to dance on the road leading to the border gate, shaking shoulders to the beat and pointing to the sky. The towering BSF guards promenade back and forth, juggling their automatic weapons and the whistles used to direct foot traffic. An emcee shouts greetings and instructions in Hindi between songs, and the whole atmosphere feels oddly like a local cricket match.

Eventually the emcee cuts the music. In the sudden silence that follows he calls out, “Hindustan?” The assembled crowd, filling the stands to capacity on the Indian side, roars back, “ZINDABAD!!” (Literally: “India … long live!”) The emcee and crowd bellow back and forth at one another for a while. Then the emcee switches to something new, shouting, “Vundai?” and the crowd, “MATRAM!!” (“Praise your … motherland!”) More cheering and a general yelling follow the chants, drowning out any noise coming from the Pakistani side of the border. I can only hear the Pakistani chants in the gaps of noise on the Indian side.

Five BSF soldiers, even bigger than their already tall colleagues, march snappily out onto the road with arms swinging to shoulder height. The crowd falls quiet, leans a little closer. The soldiers halt halfway to their gate and stand at attention. A ranking officer lets out a grunt, and the foremost member of the line steps back from the row to quickly adjust his headdress, fix his automatic weapon more snugly on his shoulder, and straighten his uniform. With a whirl of motion and limbs, he sets off with two gigantic steps, stomping hard with his boots on the concrete each time, before taking off at a surprisingly quick speed-walk toward the border gate.

Thousands of eyes follow him as he zooms by. The short, middle-age Indian gentleman next to me shoots out of his seat for a better view; the rest of the crowd half stands to see over those in front of them.

Reaching the Indian gate, the BSF soldier brings his speed-march to a halt with a flourish of contemptuous stamps and stomps. His Pakistani counterpart, equally tall and decked out in a crisp black uniform, responds in kind on his side of the gate. With a few elaborate twistings of the torso, hip, and leg to achieve maximum torque, the BSF soldier makes a parting stomp in Pakistan’s general direction and returns with a satisfied air to his position in the line of soldiers standing at attention.

A great rumbling in the crowd escalates to wild cheering, chanting encouragement of their soldier and his border posturing. Pakistani fans shower similar vocal praise on their representative. In turn, several more soldiers posture and preen before their Pakistani equivalents at the gate. The gates of each country (which are closed before the ceremony begins) open for a few more and stomps and each side lowers its flag, careful to not lower it faster than the other – but Pakistan hesitates a split second at the end so that its flag lowers last. Designated Indian and Pakistani soldiers meet for a stiff and perfunctory handshake before returning their respective flags to their respective border offices.

And, with that, the 45 minute ceremony ends. Soldiers pose for pictures while the crowds file out of the stands. Mothers nag children, couples stroll back to their cars, and tourist groups plod to their buses or to a conveniently close hotel, still partly under construction. The patriotic passion that inflamed the masses only minutes before evaporates. National pride and border hostility have all been neatly packaged into the duration of the ceremony. Then these emotions are folded up and stored away again, perhaps to keep them fresh for future border visits.

Outside the security check-point, business continues as usual – vendors make money on bottled water and DVDs of past ceremonies. My rickshaw sputters back to the city. I pass the water park almost exactly as the sun sets on Wagah, and the village settles quietly into the night after another profitable day at the border of competitive nationalism and aggression with a nudge and a wink.

Nick Wertsch will be sending in occasional letters from India.