During a recent trip to Amritsar, I had the opportunity to witness one of the most electrifying ceremonies in geopolitics – The Wagah Border Crossing ceremony between Indian and Pakistani border guards.
For those who haven’t had the pleasure of watching Indian and Pakistani soldiers (or as I suspect, failed gymnasts recruited by the army) stomp their heels and kick their legs above their heads, the ceremony primarily consists of just that: Indian and Pakistani border guards marching around like so many peacocks under the watchful gaze of Gandhiji on the Indian side and the scornful frown of Mr. Muhammad Ali Jinnah on the Pakistani side (the irony of erecting a portrait of Gandhiji, of all people, at this border crossing, of all places, is completely and utterly lost on everyone who attends this ceremony).
Yet for all of the tension, hostility and fear inherent in such a show, there’s a sense that the entire ritual is as staged as it is real. A certain (close) degree of cooperation is required in order to pull of such a flamboyant show, with the stomping, leg-kicking and flag lowering occurring just so. At times the mood seems so festive (women dance in the streets before the ceremony, for God’s sakes!) that one can’t actually be in the contested space they’ve read so much about in foreign policy journals.
Yet this choreography – no matter how laughable or infantile – is in fact real. In a bid to flaunt what it perceives to be international support, for instance, India has now instituted a so-called “foreign quota.” This horrible throwback to the colonial era, which permits Western tourists to sit in a separate, spacious section just behind the VIP area with terrific views of the ceremony (while Indians fight for seats just meters away), ensures that atithi, in all her pale and foreign glory, is as visible to the Pakistani side as the Pakistani side is to her.
Ultimately, however, this ceremony serves a useful purpose insofar as it creates a space where Indians and Pakistanis can congregate, yell silly slogans at each other in the same language, and then realize how remarkably similar they really are (“even the Pakistani wallah announcer has the same Punjabi wallah accent as the India wallah announcer!” remarked my Indian friend with astonishment). This same friend, who finally had his long awaited glimpse of “the other side,” was also struck by how utterly unremarkable Pakistan was. Across the border, we saw the exact same landscape, the exact same trees, and essentially the same people.
That this artificial border and this ceremony will one day be relegated to the history-books and remembered as a curious blot in the history of South Asia should be of no surprise to anybody. The bigger and more mysterious question, raised by my inquisitive traveling companion, is what Gandhiji and Jinnah spend those long hours talking about when the tourists leave, the border guards head home for gymnastics practice, and the two men are forced to stare at one another across an invisible, pointless line.