High drama at the Pakistan-India border, every sundown

Crowds go wild and soldiers goose-step in a chest-puffing theatrical ritual at the Wagah-Attari frontier


AFP August 12, 2022
In this photograph taken on August 1, 2022, an Indian Border Security Force (BSF) soldier (C) and a Pakistani Ranger perform during the Beating the Retreat ceremony at the Pakistan-India Wagah border post. PHOTO: AFP

Every sunset on the Pakistan, India border, crowds go wild and soldiers goose-step in a chest-puffing theatrical ritual symbolising the countries' antipathy 75 years after independence, but the display ends with a brisk, brotherly handshake.

Several hours before the ceremony, enthusiastic spectators begin trickling into sitting areas on either side of chunky iron gates separating the nuclear-armed Asian rivals at the Wagah-Attari frontier.

So close that they can see the faces of people on the other side, energetic masters of ceremony and ear-splitting nationalistic songs chivvy up the crowds as Pakistani and Indian flags sway atop immense poles.

On the Indian side there is space for 25,000 spectators -- more than on the other side -- chanting "India Zindabad" ("long live India") as a group of women perform with flags and dance wildly to the patriotic playlist.

Read more: India at 75: Dreams of a Hindu nation leave minorities sleepless

Then the soldiers arrive, stomping up to the gate, kicking their legs up -- the Indians in red-fanned hats and khaki uniforms, the Pakistanis in a dapper black.

The climax is when the gates open. One tall Indian soldier twirls his moustache with menacing intent and flexes his biceps, with equally lofty Pakistani soldiers standing just a couple of feet away.

Then the ceremony, officially known as Beating Retreat, draws to a close with the lowering of the flags and a handshake. The flags are folded and the massive iron gates clunk shut.

"My blood is boiling. I also want to join the Indian army. Today's show has filled me with nationalism," said Mangilal Vishnoi, 22, who travelled from Rajasthan to watch the ceremony with his friends.

Pakistan and India, which celebrate 75 years of independence from Britain next week, share deep cultural and linguistic links but their history has been mired in violence and bloodshed.

They were partitioned in 1947 into predominantly Hindu India and Muslim-majority Pakistan against the backdrop of communal massacres and the movement of millions of people.

The countries have since fought three wars, two of them over the disputed region of Kashmir, as well as other military clashes.

The daily border ritual, which began in 1959, has largely endured, surviving innumerable diplomatic flare-ups and military skirmishes.

It is supposed to be a symbol of cooperation but most of the spectators AFP spoke to said they felt a strong sense of rivalry.

"It was like watching an India-Pakistan cricket game. There was so much drama and action," said housewife Nisha Soni, 25, who had Indian tricolour flags painted on her cheeks.

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