India and Pakistan: An afternoon at the circus

Cross late in the afternoon from Pakistan into India through the Wagah border point, complete immigration and customs formalities, walk a further couple of hundred metres down the road and you’ll find crowds of people, predominantly Indians, assembled outside a large closed gate. They are not touts awaiting tourists leaving Pakistan; you’ll find them a few metres further along the road, near the food stalls and tables and chairs adjacent to a few convenience stores. Rather, these are tourists waiting to witness the famous flag lowering ceremony that takes place less than an hour’s drive west through green countryside from Amritsar, a major tourist destination in western India, most legendary for its (Sikh) Golden Temple.

After being let through a small side gate, and with a couple of hours to spare before sunset, I made my way to the food stalls and took a seat, grabbing a bite to eat as well as changing my Pakistani rupees with eager moneychangers. With the dearth of tourists entering and leaving Pakistan, the main business of the shop owners is aimed at the aforementioned Indian tourists milling around, champing at the bit for the show to begin, as well as chomping on samousas and sipping soft drinks, all the time battling the incessant flies. There was a contagious electricity in the air, as families and friends, variously decked out in saris, turbans, western-style clothes and baseball caps, chatted amongst themselves. Hindi music pumped out from a sound system nearby. The excitement picked up a little later on as people began to wander over to, and gather around, a couple of television sets set up above the sandy ground, exhibiting a DVD available for purchase; a patriotic-documentary on the upcoming ceremony, plus other popular tourist attractions in the region. A man high on the occasion, and clearly having imbibed too many Hindi music videos, took centre stage, blocking my view of the television, and began to bump, grind and writhe to some Hindi pop classic, his stomach catching up half a second later. Beads of sweat quickly appeared on his forehead. Another man joined him, to the roaring approval of the crowd. The spectators began to clap, slowly at first, but then with a sense of coordination. Those who were seated got up out of their chairs, nodding approvingly. The Wagah Fever Dancers, taking this as a signal to up the tempo, rocked on, sweat by now swimming all over their faces and snaking around their ears, singing out to all. The crowd then joined in the vocal extravaganza, building up to the climatic chorus. The dancers had reached their zenith but continued to push their tiring bodies. Hoarse from shouting my approval, I sipped my drink. Alas, it had to come to an end; I ordered another one. Finally, the song faded and the spectators, after much effusive applause, drifted away, just in time for me to see the end of the DVD as the camera zoomed in for a close-up of the Indian flag swirling in the breeze on top of a flag pole.
The rattle of opening gates an hour later was the signal for us to make our way down towards the ceremony’s waiting area, first passing through security checks, then standing around on either side of the road. A border guard, dressed in khaki uniform with a beret on his head, took a whistle from a shirt pocket and placed it in his mouth to organise the sprawling crowd into a group. But what is the point when standing in a queue in these parts is a sign of weakness; the whistle was not to see the inside of his pocket again. The order was then given to make our way to the arena near the border gates. The chase was on for the best seats. A mass of people roared around a bend to the right, transforming into a running queue, Indian style, and then turned left towards the spectator stands specially built for the occasion.

Across on the Pakistan side could be seen the Pakistan stands, holding hundreds rather than the thousands that can be accommodated on the Indian side. There are in fact two separate stands, segregating males and females, divided by a cream coloured fort-like structure with domes on either side, a mural portraying the founder of Pakistan, President Jinnah, in its centre, with the Pakistan flag towering over it. Some spectators, unable to find a seat, leaned over white railings, flags in hand.

Music pumped out from large speakers across the road from us, as we sat and waited. Border guards, some with huge moustaches, directed those people who continued to throng along the road below the stands. Several men and the occasional woman, danced on the road with large Indian flags in their hands. The guards stepped in when the right balance between order and crowd excitement in the stands was disturbed.

The stands soon began to fill up. The result of India’s movement towards a free market economy, with its attending burgeoning middle class, was highlighted by the ubiquitous display of newly acquired digital cameras, as friends and family posed for photos, with huge Indian flags their backdrop, swirling onto the heads of spectators nearby. Others chatted amongst themselves. If I was on the Pakistani side I would certainly have by now been flooded with questions along with much pumping of hands, yet there was no acknowledgment of my presence from the Indians around me who are much more used to western tourists than their neighbours. I felt the same way towards this new anonymity as I did to the steaming hot summer that had enveloped me ever since I had left those cooler parts of northern Pakistan; when it was cold I wished it was warm, but when I reached the warmer climes, I wished it was cold again. The assembled spectators soon became restless. A hefty and boisterous man seated in the row in front, who had earlier berated an older married couple next to him to move along and make some room for him and his friend, only to mock them afterwards for doing so, joined in the party atmosphere, shouting his encouragement to its vanguard down by the border gate.

As the sun began to set, the guards hurried up the latecomers with a fortunate few being allowed to stand on the other side of the road opposite the VIP stands. Ritualistic cries in Hindi of “Long live Hindustan…Long live Hindustan…Death to Pakistan” continued to echo out intermittently from various spots in the stands. The assembled crowd responded emphatically, more with effervescence than belligerence, which belied the frequent strong feelings of animosity and distrust that many Indians hold towards Pakistan and its people, although it is not as manifest as the rhetoric emanating from their government. I had the feeling that this day the assembled crowd, on balance, was more interested in exultations of being Indian, than an overt release of antagonism.

At last a small group of Indian Border Security Forces lined up on the road. They were strikingly attired in khaki uniforms, complete with black shoes, wide belts, multi-coloured cravats, black turbans with multi coloured striped headbands supporting gold tassels that tickled their left ears, peacock-like red fans rising imperiously from the tops of their heads, with medals attached to their shirts over their left pockets, name badges pinned on the right. After a signal they proceeded to march, with a mixture of pomposity, goosestepping and high kicks that ended in thuds on the ground so forceful that I instinctively did stretching exercises. Their opposite numbers, the Pakistani Rangers (who were similarly attired with the exception of their black hue), expertly mirrored these pouting and provocative manoeuvres, with their air of hostility and condescension towards the other side. A guard revved up the crowd from the front of the stands. After a bout of this synchronised taunting, they made their way to the massive metal grilled gates with much gesticulation and fuss, and flung them open. Opposing officers briefly shook hands and then the flags were slowly lowered in theatrical fashion. The flags were carried away and the officers then returned to shake hands ever so briefly and aggressively, as if each other’s hand was burning hot. The gates were slammed shut.

I had heard that usually, after the ceremony was over, crowds would swarm towards the gate, shouting and waving their fists towards the opposing side, less than demonstrative spectators being whistled at to increase their intensity. That didn’t happen the day I was there, with the spectators clearing the stands, some milling around below, and others wandering back towards the buses and cars, satisfied at the just completed show. While it doesn’t take one long to surmise that the Indian and Pakistani governments have been inefficient at providing bread for their citizens, they sure know how to put on a circus.

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