India-Pakistan border closing ceremony near Amritsar
30.05.2012 - 30.05.2012 41 °C
List the most tense cross-border relations you can think of around the globe, and India/Pakistan will almost certainly be in the top three. The opportunity to watch Indian and Pakistani soldiers "squaring off" at the border post near Amritsar was therefore too good for us to miss. In fact, this daily ceremony has become so popular that bus loads of tourists on both sides of the border fill out grandstands every day to get a view of the action. Last Wednesday we were among them.
Mounted Indian soldiers fight to control the crowds of Indian and foreign tourists that have come to watch the border ceremony
The stands are packed and the nationalist sentiment at fever pitch
Non-Indians get a special seat. Not sure Pakistanis qualify for this area, though!
There must have been 10,000 Indians on our side of the dividing gates, packed like sardines, waving flags and chanting nationalistic songs as they waited for the ceremony to begin. The crowd was pumped up further by a carefully selected medley of Indian hits blasted out over loudspeakers - the most popular being the closing number from the film "Slumdog Millionaire".
On the Pakistani side, things were distinctly lower key and the stands less crowded. People looked the same as on the Indian side except that the men tended to wear more traditional dress, and women were conspicuously confined to a separate seating area. However, when the Pakistani side's sound system started belting out its national classics, the crowd became far more animated, encouraged further by a mascot in a Pakistan T-shirt waving a huge Pakistan flag in the area below the stands.
Men on the Pakistani side looking distinctly indifferent
Pakistani women in the lady's stand
Pakistani hits and a waving flag soon got the opposition crowd kick started
During the build up to the ceremony actually beginning, there was plenty to keep the Indian crowd entertained, apart from singing songs and taunting the Pakistanis. Spectators could take turns to run up to the border gate with giant Indian flags, cheered on by the crowd. The ladies of the audience were encouraged to come down to the parade ground to dance together to the Indian hits blaring out over the speakers. This was a carefully stage-managed message to Pakistan: "Your women are confined to a separate stand; our Indian women are liberated enough to dance on the parade ground if they please". Having seen the lot of most Indian women over the last three weeks, we at least were not convinced by the spin, but it made for amusing viewing as the sari-clad Indian ladies danced their hearts out below us.
People were fighting for the honour of running up to the gates with the Indian flag - the woman on the right pushed herself a bit too hard and took a tumble for the cause
The liberated ladies of India enjoy an "impromptu" dance on the parade ground
The Indian soldiers played a brilliant Jekyll and Hyde role in all this: now pumping their hands in the air to get the crowd jumping to the music, now blowing their whistles and telling spectators to sit down and be quiet; now pulling women out of the crowd to come to the parade ground and dance, now forming a barrier to stop the dancing women advancing too close towards the border line. These guys clearly revel in their role as players in what feels like a sporting event, and enjoy just as much as the crowd the nationalist fervour of the proceedings.
As the start of proceedings approached, the Indian soldiers began to preen themselves and practice their most outrageous goose steps. We could see the Pakistani rival soldiers getting themselves into their mental zone on the other side as well. The sound of bugles on both sides marked the start of proceedings: two furious looking female Indian soldiers stormed down the path to the border gate, half running as they went, and then goose stepped around at the gate, taking up positions either side. Once again, the fact that female soldiers led the Indian charge is no coincidence - these are some of the only female soldiers we have seen in this country but the message to Pakistan's all-male border guards is clearly an important bit of one-upmanship to the Indians.
The only two female soldiers in the Indian army?
The female soldiers were followed by various goose-stepping, angry-looking Indian soldiers who lined up on either side of the Indian gate. Meanwhile, on the Pakistani side their soldiers were also gathering, presumably in their own comical goose stepping way.
The incredible soldiers' outfits on the Indian side
The Pakistanis scrub up not badly themselves
Suddenly, the gates were flung open and we could see the green-suited Pakistani soldiers squaring off on their side against the tan and red Indian soldiers on our side. Now the real show could begin, as pairs of Pakistani and Indian guards quick marched at each other, just stopping short of crossing the border before turning 90 degrees and goose stepping in unison in different directions. They would then face off and sometimes raise their arms as if to reach for their weapons... before purposely adjusting the position of their plumed bonnets and returning their hands to their sides. This was great entertainment and the crowd was loving it. During this diplomatic dance the only two people actually guarding the border were the two machine-gun wielding, sunglass-clad special forces guys who lined up about a metre from each other on either side of the border line wearing their best grimaces.
And they're off - some seriously quick marching...
.... some ridiculous goose stepping...
... and some comical adjusting of the plumed headgear...
But mostly just standing to attention and looking pretty!
The main part of the ceremony was the lowering of the Indian and Pakistani flags by the border guards - to be done strictly in unison so that neither flag descends before the other. Thankfully they managed it. After that, it was time for the commanding officers of each side to shake hands - something they quickly did three times in an extremely firm manner - and then the gates were slammed shut as each side's soldiers goose stepped back to base, carrying the flag like a sacred parchment. Another day of business closed at the India/Pakistan border.
Careful coordination of the flag lowering to ensure neither side is embarrassed by having its national colours lowered first
The firmest of handshakes - nice to see them smiling at least!
The entertainment did not end there as there was time for everyone to have photos with their favourite border guards after the ceremony. The Indian army clearly runs some kind of beauty pageant for these posts - we had never seen such tall, strapping Indians before!
Time to pose for photos after the gates close
Grant and grimacing Indian special forces guy
Helena with preened Indian border guard - possibly the tallest Indian we have ever seen
The irony of this daily display of aggressive military jingoism by two of the world's few nuclear powers is that it can only function on the basis of very good cross-border cooperation. This is highly skilled theatre, which requires careful coordination and practice by each side to pull off the mirrored goose stepping and all the other melodrama that forms part of the display. It is therefore no coincidence that the display is near Amritsar at a part of the border where relations are good and there are many cross-border friendships and family ties. This kind of display could never work in Kashmir, or even Rajasthan where there are real border disputes between these two Asian giants. As long as the display keeps going (and it has run since 1959), we will know that things are ok between the two countries.
Of course, you can wonder how healthy it is for crowds of Pakistanis and Indians to gather each day at the border and cheer their soldiers on as they feign aggression to each other. But then, it's really no worse than the sentiments that accompany any cricket match between these two countries, or indeed any big sporting fixture between most countries. So we think it's best to just enjoy the pantomime for what it is, and cross our fingers that the show keeps running!