© 2012 Ghazala

India-Pakistan Wagah Border Ceremony


I went to the India-Pakistan border closing ceremony–but I couldn’t decide whether to shout “Vande mataram!” or “Pakistan Zindabad!” So instead, I shouted “Balle balle!” & broke out the bhangra with the rest of the revelers in the middle of the street.

I describe the ceremony in words & pictures as best as I can below, but you really must watch it in person, or at the very least, on video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LZ0ue-XGl9c

Being a semi-ambiguous looking racial minority in America (as I’ve been told by many who have guessed my ethnicity to be anywhere from African to Brazilian), I’m constantly being asked, “What are you?”

Well, for one, I’m a human being, not an object; and two, what’s it to you?

If you really must know, I suggest employing proper grammar and sensitivity and rephrasing the question to “What’s your ethnicity?” It’s an improvement, but if it’s the first question you ask upon seeing me (even before my name—which has actually happened to me multiple times, believe it or not), I’ll know it’s because you feel the need to fit me neatly into some box so that you will feel more at ease—but that’s a whole different can of worms I’ll post later.

My father is south Indian, and my mother is…complicated. Her dad is a Tamil Indian who went to work in what was formerly known as East Pakistan (present-day Bangladesh), where he married my north Indian-born grandmother who was raised there. Shortly before the India-Pakistan war in 1971, my mom and her parents moved to West Pakistan (present-day Pakistan) to escape the tumult.

Basically, my ancestry is Indian but my parents used to be of different nationalities (now they’re both naturalized US citizens). I have family in both India and Pakistan that I’ve visited multiple times, so I feel some allegiance to both countries.

To keep it simple though, I tell most people who want to know about my heritage that I’m Indian, which sometimes elicits the follow-up question “Red dot or feather?”


Having an Indian father and a Pakistani(-ish) mother made a visit to the border between the two countries seem like a fitting farewell to India at the end of my first backpacking excursion there in the spring of 2010.

The last stop on my tour was in Amritsar, Punjab, home of the Golden Temple, Sikhism’s holiest shrine. Only about 20 miles east, but a world away from the tranquil temple, is the checkpoint of Wagah on the Grand Trunk Road, the only land border crossing between India and Pakistan. Wagah itself is one of the villages through which the British drew the Radcliffe Line in 1947 to partition Muslim Pakistan from secular India, dividing people who had shared centuries of language, food, customs, culture, and even religion. Though there’s no such thing, it’s sometimes referred to as “South Asia’s Berlin Wall” for representing the thick tension between the two governments.


Every evening at sunset since 1959, the Indian Border Security Force (BSF) and the Pakistan Rangers lower their respective flags in an almost theatrical drum-beating retreat ceremony for thousands of rabid partisans on both sides.

The fervent atmosphere is akin to an India versus Pakistan cricket match, with similar clapping and chanting by fanatical crowds: “Vande Mataram!” from the Indians and “Pakistan Zindabad!” from the Pakistanis. Spurred on by an emcee with a microphone and roused by loudspeakers playing patriotic songs that sound like a pre-battle warm-up, each side tries to drown out the other from their amphitheater seats.


Many rush from the stands to dance together between the two gates, Bollywood filmi style, while children on both sides run, waving their country flags, toward the gates.


In spite of all the displays of one-upmanship though, I feel the rivalry is good-natured among the jawans (soldiers) putting on this choreographed show of faux bravado that begins and ends with a handshake. They must have to get along in order to be able to perfectly synchronize such animosity. The BSF in their tan uniforms, and the Rangers in their black shalwar khameez, all of them well-built and at least six-and-a-half-feet tall, only look like fighting cocks with the fan-shaped crests on their turbans. I’m sure they’re smiling somewhere under their gigantic handlebar mustaches (plus beards for the Pakistanis).


A horn blares, to silence the throngs on either side, though I’ll shamefacedly admit those of us on the Indian side are considerably more rambunctious. One after another, the jawans goose-step toward each other and their gates from opposite ends, stomping their black boots so high (almost to their foreheads) and so hard that they were recently forced to tone it down, though due to joint damage in their knees, not for diplomatic reasons. I feel like I’m watching the The Nutcracker Ballet’s toy soldiers on Jessie Spano’s “caffeine pills.”


Once they are glaring at each other face to face in the middle (timed with military precision to coincide with sundown), the BSF and the Rangers salute each other, the gates swing open, and both India and Pakistan’s flags are respectfully lowered from opposing ends at the same time, crossing each other to create the silhouette of a perfectly symmetrical “X” in front of the setting sun.


Then the flags are folded, the gates slammed shut, a horn sounds, and the soldiers take quick but long strides to march the flags back to their respective sides.

Though their governments’ relationship might be strained, and some have left Wagah with a bad taste in their mouths at what they perceived to be “jingoism,” all I witnessed was a good-natured release of tension by brothers and sisters who are separated not by time, war, politics, or propaganda–only a line.

Soldiers and revelers face off at the line one more time every year. At midnight between August 14th & 15th, Pakistan and India’s respective Independence Days, they embrace each other with sweets and candles in hand for a vigil of peace.

I really don’t think it matters which side of the line I’m on.

Click here for more of my Wagah photos.

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