Wagah Border ceremony: Choose one identity over another

Published: August 14, 2015

It reminds everyone that beyond the short ceremony taking place, the militaries of both nations are pointing nuclear weapons at each other.

For almost 3,000 kilometres, the border fence between Pakistan and India runs from the sea to the great mountains of the north.  It is lit by 150,000 flood lights, which glow bright orange from space, scarring the solace of the desert and the shared cultural history of the millions who live in it. 

It is broken in the hinterlands of Punjab by the Wagah Border Crossing. While the border itself is a product of the violent geo-political dynamic between the countries, this passage across it undermines its absoluteness and highlights its complexity.

The border separates the two countries, bisecting a culture and its people – governed by two sworn enemies yet also ancient relatives.  A sliver of land exists between each county’s gate, and in this stateless purgatory, each nation ironically flies their flag.  Every day at dawn, the gates are flung open to raise each flag, and then again at dusk to lower them for the night.  These glimpsing moments of trust are approached with both extreme ceremony and caution, worthy of the international spectacle it has become.

Arriving for the first time just before dusk on the Pakistani side, other attendees look like they have come to a sporting match, dressed in the green and white of the Pakistani flag. As the stadium seating starts filling, the men separate from the women on opposite sides of the trans-national highway, and it becomes clear that the border fence is not the only divide in the crowd.  Giant concert-sized speakers begin blasting Pakistani pop music, and men with enormous Pakistani flags run along the road between the stands to the crowd’s cheers.

Then unceremoniously, the music is cut and the crowd silences, and speakers from across the border blast Bollywood pop to the roar of an unseen crowd behind the gates chanting,

“Hindustan, Hindustan!”

It becomes apparent that the whole ceremony is a practiced ritual between the two sides, once described as “carefully choreographed contempt”.

However, the festive mood is interrupted by Special Forces brandishing arm cannons who take positions on the border gate, mirrored by their counterparts on the other side with the same bushy moustaches in a message of mutually assured destruction.  It reminds everyone that beyond the short ceremony taking place, the militaries of both nations are pointing nuclear weapons at each other.

Between the ping-ponging of pop music across the border, the gender segregated stands, and the militarisation of the ceremony for civilians, another division emerges.  It is the Pakistani elite, ushered into VIP private seating in the front row, men and women sitting together.  Men in kurtas with enormous pot bellies, and women with designer sunglasses but without hijabs, brandishing smartphones, and cute little Pakistani flags painted on their faces.

The diversity of division begs the question, why has everyone chosen to direct their attention only to the nationalistic division, during this ceremony when all are front and centre?

The great Nobel Laureate, Amartya Sen’s ideas seem so salient.  He writes about the multiple identities that we all hold based on the myriad of roles we fill in life, as citizens, professionals, mothers, or brothers, and notes that each can be associated with different perspectives and even values.

I strive to understand why Pakistani women sit at the ceremony with sons on their lap as a Pakistani, chanting slogans against Indian mothers on the other side of the fence, instead of conspiring with them to unite against any hatred that might endanger children on either side of the fence.

Why do the masses in the stands not form an alliance to chant against the privileged class in the front, and how come the small business owners on either side of the fence fail to bond to advocate for easier trade access across the fence?

Why do we choose one identity over another in any given situation?

Men dressed in ornate ceremonial military uniforms from the countries’ shared colonial era emerge in formation, and the gates open like theatre curtains, revealing the same formation on the Indian side. Then with the dramatic elegance of the West Side Story, men march, stamp, and shake their fists at each other, in a coordinated ballet of anger worthy of a Mexican wrestling arena.

Upon reaching the gate, the two sides shake hands briefly, lower their respective flags in unison, and slam the gates shut with bellowing metallic booms.

Having had shared the same experience in the same place, the Indians and Pakistanis depart down the same dusty desert road in opposite directions, relaying the highlights of the event in almost the same language.  It is a border constructed of hate, but bridged by culture, cuisine, legends, and the love of families split apart by it.

Five months after I visited the ceremony, a suicide bomber killed around 55 people and injured 120, highlighting the contemporary conflict that resulted in the border itself.  The Wagah Border Crossing ceremony is a glimmer of hope in the level of cooperation it shows, which is possible between the two countries’ militaries that share a past, and may still have a chance to share a future.

It seems to bring the two sides just a little closer, and to this regard, one wonders if and when the Wagah Crossing of gender and class empowerment will emerge in these two neighbouring countries.

All photos: Mike McCaffrey

The original piece appeared here.

Mike McCaffrey

Mike McCaffrey

The author works internationally in financial technology and writes about the beauty and intrigue of our world (nomadic-by-nature.com). He grew-up in San Francisco, holds a master's degree from Princeton University, has traveled to 65 countries, and currently resides in Kenya. He tweets @nomadic_travels

The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.

  • wb

    This is a disgusting ceremony and looks like the squabbling of two toddlers. ACtually that’s what India and Pakistan are.

    At least India should mature up and stop this ridiculously disgusting ceremony. Let the Pakistan do it on its own and within weeks it will also realize how stupid and clownish they’ll look without India doing it.

    But who’s going to instill some sense into Indian leadership? Indian leadership is still immature, starting with Modi who’s busy banning, un-banning, banning, un-banning things. Clearly, without any clear vision for either home policy or foreign policy. None of the promises made during the elections are fulfilled. Most important issues are not even touched upon.

    So, to expect such failed government to have some basic decency to understand how jokerish, baffonish we look like with this ceremony, is an impossible task.

    I really hope one day India gets a leader who is mature and sensible and logical and reasonable.Recommend

  • Rohan

    I strive to understand why Pakistani women sit at the ceremony with sons on their lap as a Pakistani, chanting slogans against Indian mothers on the other side of the fence, instead of conspiring with them to unite against any hatred that might endanger children on either side of the fence.

    Good question, Pakistan was created out of hatred towards India and is united by its hatred.Pakistanis dont have an identity and define themselves as ‘not India’Recommend

  • Headstrong

    What an utterly useless ceremony! We have to shed these chauvinistic symbols if there’s to be any hope of understanding between us. These are signs of two absolutely immature nations. Shame!Recommend

  • Parvez

    Some 35 years ago I visited the Wagah border and the sedate, tasteful ceremony that took place made absolute sense and was impressive…….today I refuse to go, its jarring, commercial and tasteless.Recommend

  • Nomad1412

    Firstly, hardly anyone except Punjabis bother to visit this so-called ceremony. Rest of the Indians forming the vast majority are oblivious to this event and would rather spend their money going anywhere else. On the Pakistan side, I have been told that most visitors are again Punjabis but that may be because Pakistan is dominated by that ethnicity. What exactly are they celebrating? I haven’t the faintest clue.

    Secondly, if ordinary Indians ever had a say in this matter they would unilaterally terminate this Monty Pythonesque Ministry of Silly Walks exercise in futility. Watching that ludicrous charade makes me squirm each and every time. This jingoistic dance ballet simply has to end.Recommend

  • suresh

    An out dated & senseless ceremonyRecommend

  • VRM

    On this Independence day both, India and Pakistan should stop this tamasha. Stop this ceremony, which is nothing but war mongering.Recommend

  • Aamir – Toronto

    Rohan….Did you read the history before making such a false statement.

    FYI, Pakistan was not created out of hatred towards India, it was created due to injustice towards Muslims by Hindus. Pakistanis do have identity and we take pride in that unlike Indians !!!Recommend

  • Aamir – Toronto

    who told you that this event is dominated by Punjabis.Recommend

  • Karnal Sher Khan forever

    Pakistan was made by divorcing India and Brits both.

    India was ruled by Muslims for over 800 years and most of those Muslims decided to create their own nation. It was the right decision.

    India is a nation that elects a radical racist Hindu like Modi who has Muslim and Christian blood on his hand.

    Pakistan… Pakistan Zinda Bad.Recommend

  • Nomad1412

    I am a Christian in India and dare you implicate Modi with any Christian bloodshed. Don’t drag us into your mess.Recommend

  • Abhishek Chaturvedi

    in pakistan every muslim has blood in his/her hand… its like a daily ritual in pakistan…. u go to the west ….u say pakistan…. and just check out their expression … forget west… go to south east asian countries also….
    anyway happy independence day… though u have nothing to be proud of … not a single achievement … still be happy..Recommend

  • Abhishek Chaturvedi

    so much of gender segregation in pak… its good we don’t have divide on the side of the border … the indian side….. and then pakistanis wonder y they are ranked so hopelessly on gender equality …Recommend

  • Guy

    If your rule holds true then what happened now where you guys feel so much in disarray where loot & mass murders are rampant in your society. It is hard truth that you were the same under privileged class during the glorious Mughal rule as you are in today. You get what you deserve. Partition was the best thing to happen with India but alas ….. incomplete. And the irony is we can’t even change the neighbors.

    IF Modi’s hand are having Muslim blood then whose hand are having Bengali Muslim blood once the same nation. Whose carrying the blood of those Christian brick kiln workers those who were torched alive. Whose having the blood of Christians who were recently massacred in Lahore. Recommend

  • Aadi xx

    Get over it dude, How many times U gonna hide behind Modi veil..

    Does ur politicians are not racist and corrupt? Do they not promote forced conversions.. And whats up with Telling every time India was ruled by Muslims, so what , why u guyz always tether religion with everything.. Not that i hate Islam but imagine a world without Islamic extremists or for that matter any extremist.

    At least get ur facts correct, It was not a unilateral decision by Pakistan for division..It was in lines with “Mountbatten Plan”.Recommend

  • Anon

    “I strive to understand why Pakistani women sit at the ceremony with sons on their lap as a Pakistani, chanting slogans against Indian mothers on the other side of the fence, instead of conspiring with them to unite against any hatred that might endanger children on either side of the fence.

    Why do the masses in the stands not form an alliance to chant against the privileged class in the front, and how come the small business owners on either side of the fence fail to bond to advocate for easier trade access across the fence?”

    Read history and don’t waste our time with your articles. Tribune should do a better job of selecting stories to publishRecommend

  • http://peddarowdy.wordpress.com/ Anoop

    This is a disgusting ceremony. Utter waste of money and resources. What are these people chanting towards?
    I had read the Indian Army had wanted to scrap it couple of year ago, tone it down bit by bit, until this ritual of hate is gone forever.

    This reminds me of the ritual of hate in the dytopian novel Big Brother, 2 minutes of hate. I think I hate this ceremony more than I hate Sea World!
    Why should Indian soldiers shout, stomp, make angry faces towards Pakistan? Let the Pakistanis do it. We should unilaterally withdraw. Do we have this ceremony with all our neighbours?

    Indian Army wants to scrap it, but looks like the Politicians dont. Shameful.Recommend

  • Ali

    Haha – this myth Hindu nationalists tell themselves – no Pakistani I know defines themselves as ‘not India’. In our elections, we have no time for parties that pursue aggressive posturing against India – but in your national elections any political party that even hints at warming relations with Pakistani loses out. Paan for thought for all the Indians.Recommend

  • Madd Dogg

    This is a stupid ceremony. Either it should be dignified and follow some drill manual, or ended altogether. Even Express Tribune carried a sensible piece by Mr Kamran Shafi. http://tribune.com.pk/story/357038/ugly-ceremonies-traitors-galore/
    The whole exercise is cringe-worthy.Recommend

  • Stars

    So would you support if minorities of pakistan ask for a partition of pakistan on the basis of injustice towards ahmedis, shias, hindus christians by muslims of pakistan. Would you apply the same logic that you used in 1947Recommend

  • https://www.blogger.com/blogger.g?blogID=8559594100366660134#allposts Supriya Arcot

    If nothing , then its a crowd puller and lures tourists.Recommend

  • mimi sur

    I laugh loudly when someone says India was ruled by muslims for 800 years. You can’t even rule yourself in 20th century . All Islamic states are in fire . Some one even says either monarchy or anarchy suits Islamic nations.Let the enemy remain in dark…Bande Maataramm..Recommend

  • anil

    Did you get a chance to ask them why men and women were segregated ?Recommend


    The venom in your tone justifies the two nation theory even after 70 years.Recommend


    That is why India is the rape capital of the world.Recommend

  • suresh

    Another Mullah productRecommend

  • Rohan

    Check out British councils survey, only 25% of Pakistanis called themselves Pakistanis.Most called themselves sindhis or balochis or Punjabi or MuslimsRecommend

  • Rohan

    There are as many Muslims in India as in Pakistan, your bogus 2 nation theory failed when majority of your population, the Bengalis separatedRecommend

  • Rohan

    Nobody ever bashes India for getting votes, stop making up conspiracy theories.Most don’t even know care, they only care about Pakistan when it sends terroristsRecommend

  • Abhishek Chaturvedi

    ohh looks like u are not aware of kasur scandal…. as usual bury under the mat ….in pak the thing is the entire system is broken … so no justice at allRecommend

  • Abhishek Chaturvedi

    so gender segregation prevents rape…. wow … another paklogic…. u people keep on proving that ur literacy rate is much below 50% as claimed by ur govt …..Recommend

  • someone

    Could you please go to the grave of MAJ and pray for him from 1.25 billion Indians who could not thank him enough for creating Pakistan? He did a great service to India by taking you guys out of India.Recommend

  • someone

    LOL. I wonder if you have read history at all. Before Independence , it were British who were ruling. Before British, it was , as you say Muslim rule in India. So how come Hindus could do any injustice towards Muslims???? I think you guys need to sit together and once for all sort out all your stories and fables together. So far they don’t hold much water.Recommend

  • Ali

    I agree no one bashes India for getting votes – glad we agree. No one cares about India – it’s a pretentious neighbouring wallowing in poverty with an elite few at the top abusing their power fooling the Indian nation with illusions of development and freedom haha.Recommend

  • Aamir – Toronto

    And what about Indians…..I’ve never visited India but I met lots of Indians abroad and majority of them introduced themselves as Keralites, Maharashtrans, etc……i wonder why ???


  • kuku1

    Well said! I agree 110%.If they don’t want to even accept Eid sweets,why bother? We all have better things to do and truly worthwhile things to celebrate on our Scientific and technological accomplishmentsRecommend

  • Rohan

    if Pakistan were a person, he (and it would have to be a he) would have to be completely humorless, paranoid, insecure, eager to take offense, and suffering from self-righteousness, self-pity, and self-hatred. That last triptych of vices is intimately connected. The self-righteousness comes from the claim to represent a religion: the very name “Pakistan” is an acronym of Punjab, Afghanistan, Kashmir, and so forth, the resulting word in the Urdu language meaning “Land of the Pure.” The self-pity derives from the sad fact that the country has almost nothing else to be proud of: virtually barren of achievements and historically based on the amputation and mutilation of India in 1947 and its own self-mutilation in Bangladesh. The self-hatred is the consequence of being pathetically, permanently mendicant: an abject begging-bowl country that is nonetheless run by a super-rich and hyper-corrupt Punjabi elite. As for paranoia: This not so hypothetical Pakistani would also be a hardened anti-Semite, moaning with pleasure at the butchery of Daniel Pearl and addicted to blaming his self-inflicted woes on the all-powerful JewsRecommend

  • Ali

    Haha – rant over?Recommend

  • James

    What we are trying to tell you is not Hatred or Venom. Whether you like it or not, The Muslim and Christian Population on India has increased. The main reason for this was the solid foundations of separating religion from the State,done by our visionary leaders. Look at pakistan today, every Hindu,Sikh or Christian over there wants to leave the Country. Recommend

  • James

    Dear Aamir, What Hindus are you talking about. Before the Creation of Pakistan, the Whole Country was ruled by the British. And before that was the Mughal Rule, See this is the problem. Generation after generation in Pakistan has been poisoned against Hindus and India. This is purely due to lack of education and awareness. Aray Bhai both Hindus and Muslims fought the Britishers as one.Recommend

  • Tommy Gun

    Yes there’s poverty in India, corruption & other ills as well but unlike Pakistanis, we don’t live in denial & bury our heads in the sand. Our economy is currently one of the fastest growing economies in the world & literacy levels are rising while poverty levels are decreasing every year. We are rated second in Information Technology (after US) & launched a successful Mars mission (only the third country to do so). Meanwhile your country has become a [email protected] hole with rising terrorism, poverty, lawlessness, high unemployment, high inflation, low literacy etc. Indians are respected world wide while nobody gives visa to Pakistanis. Take a good look in the mirror & get your facts from credible sources before you comment.Recommend

  • Tommy Gun

    Don’t mistake yourself to be a descendant of the Muslims who ruled India. Those were mongols. You are a product forced conversion & your ancestors did not have the spine to face intimidation & sold their souls. Your lineage is that of cowards, not braves.Recommend

  • PatelPara

    Another white trash writing to appease India. He again says that Pakistani women are doing hatred.

    And indian women over there were chanting good stuff for Pakistan? Why does ET allow to write against Pakistanis? Why don’t we see this in Indian media?Recommend