Old tensions spawn amusing rituals
Following the largest exercise in democracy the world has ever seen, India now has a new prime minister in the shape of Narendra Modi. After years of rule – some would say stagnation – under the Nehru-Gandhi dynasty of the Congress Party, it seems likely that the charismatic technocrat will bring new approaches to old problems.
Looming large among the challenges facing him is the thorny relationship with Pakistan. This is a problem as old as the nation itself. Ever since the British withdrew from the the Sub Continent in 1947 and the Raj was partitioned into India and Pakistan, the two countries have been sworn enemies. In the years since there have been three all-out wars, one undeclared war and numerous armed skirmishes and military standoffs.
Although this rivalry is deadly serious – both countries, it must be remembered, possess nuclear arsenals – it has spawned one of the most bizarre, bonkers and brilliant spectator events in the world today.
The location is the Wagah border crossing near the Sikh holy city of Amritsar where soldiers from both sides participate in a stylised flag-lowering ceremony as the gates are closed for the evening.
For a couple of quid, I took a shared taxi for the drive to the frontier and joined the excited crowds walking towards venue. After being lightly frisked, I was ushered through the gates to the ‘foreigner’ section of the arena, which was just next to the ‘VIP’ enclosure.
As the crowds started to fill the main terraces, the atmosphere was crackling like electricity. Flags were waved and both sides sang along to patriotic songs being blasted out by opposing speaker systems. At first, the Pakistanis (where men and women were segregated on either side of their arena) seemed to be winning the war of enthusiasm.
But then a chap in a tracksuit bounded out with a microphone, and the audience erupted. I think he may have been a famous cricketer or film star, either way, the crowd recognised him and were eating out of his hand as he did his emcee bit. Just as the terraces were going crazy with chants of “Hindustan! Hindustan! Hindustan!”, the speakers were cranked up to 11 with some Bollywood dance anthems. At this point, a very pretty girl in a green sari ran out from the crowd and started dancing. Then another joined her, and another, until the road leading to the border was full of women dancing with wild abandon. The surrounding terraces erupted as the chaps (who stayed where they were) roared their approval. Over the border, I noticed that the flag fluttering had died down, as though the Pakistanis were forced to concede that it was one-nil to India when it came to having fun.
At this point, the top brass arrived. The man who was clearly the commanding officer was wearing work-a-day combat fatigues with aviator shades and a black beret. As he strode into view, the women melted back into the audience, and the place went wild. This fella (a little man, almost dwarfed by his own moustache) acknowledged the adoration of of the crowd with a crisp salute and an elaborate wave. I would imagine he’s probably the only border guard in the world who has achieved celebrity status.
After inspecting the men and women under his command, he took his place in the VIP area, and the show-down began. In highly choreographed demonstrations of drill and distain, the soldiers quick-marched – well, quick ran, really – towards the gate, where they were met (with perfect timing) by their opposite numbers. There then followed displays of stylised machismo, as they squared up to each other, cockily adjusting their fan-topped headgear as they stared down their noses through the bars. All the chaps, mainly Sikhs on the Indian side, were enormous. It was like watching the weigh-ins before heavyweight boxing grudge matches. But there were also female troops involved, who – as Kipling suggested – looked more deadly than the males.
All this to-ing and fro-ing went on for quite a while, but the crowds couldn’t get enough of it. Every new encounter through the gates and every high-kicking goose step prompted huge roars. Then, suddenly, the two gates were simultaneously flung open, and the troops were standing chest to chest. The Indian side were wearing khaki uniforms with red headgear (mainly turbans) and gold trim. The Pakistan troops were dressed in more or less the same outfits, except theirs were black, with red and silver trimmings. Very smart, just like the SS – the ideal colour scheme for style-conscious baddies.
I didn’t get a very good view of what was going on at the gate. I think the posturing gave way to a ritualised handshake before the two national flags were simultaneously lowered and the gates slammed shut again.
Although I’m not usually that fond of spectator sports (or any entertainment that involves being in a crowd) I was spellbound by the whole performance. The whole “show” was so well co-ordinated, and performed with such an outrageous sense of theatre, it just served to prove how close the two countries really are. It was a bit like watching an American wrestling bout, when you know that “Igor ‘The Impaler’ Grabski” and “The Mighty Ringo Brown” are actually gay lovers who live together in a caravan in Winnipeg.
Let’s hope that India’s new leader can ensure that the border show-down is the closest his nation comes to an all-out war.