Experience 14: Visit the strangest border in the world
by Oliver Smith
What happens when you mix the atmosphere of a World Cup final with an international boundary?
The answer, we found out today, is at the Wagah border – a crossing point between India and Pakistan. Every day at sunset, border guards from both sides face each other off in a marching routine in front of cheering supporters, before slamming the border gate shut for the night and lowering their flags.
The routine started as a display of aggression between two nations that have fought four wars, and that still keep nuclear weapons pointed at each other. But, today, the frontline in the Indo-Pakistani Cold War takes the form of a highly theatrical daily dance-off between the two countries at Wagah. Sporting twirly moustaches, soldiers from India and Pakistan mock-charge each other, swivelling on their heels like ballerinas, and kicking so high their shiny boots graze their foreheads. As someone from Britain, I find it hard to imagine an equivalent scenario back home – perhaps morris dancing boisterously in the middle of the Channel Tunnel?
We witnessed the ceremony from the Indian side ahead of a cricket match between the two countries, which made everyone even more excitable. There was a real party spirit – an MC happily played techno music and chants of ‘Long Live India!’ rang out in response to the cheers from the Pakistani side. There’s something gratifying about it for the spectators – like shouting abuse at a really annoying neighbour from behind the safety of a garden fence.
But there’s a bittersweet element to this. During the turmoil that followed the partition of British India in 1947, Muslim families from what is today the Republic of India relocated to what is now the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, with Hindu and Sikh families fleeing in the opposite direction. It was the biggest mass-migration in human history – whole communities were uprooted during partition, and families split down the middle.
At the end of the display, people from both sides barge their way to the closed border gate – a few test out their filthiest insults on each other. But, strangely, a bigger number stand quietly behind the railings, peering curiously at the countryside on the opposite side.