August is the time of division for South Asia’s two age-old rivals, Pakistan and India. On August 15, 1947, India and Pakistan gained independence from Britain. On the same day, the territories under British rule were divided between India and the newly established state of Pakistan.
The year 1947, when British lawyer Sir Radcliffe took pen in hand to draw the border on a map, cutting through the Punjab in the northwest and Bengal in the east, also marked the division of the subcontinent and the birth of two eternal enemies.
For years, soldiers on both sides of the Wagah-Attari border, between Pakistan’s Wagah city and India’s Attari city, have been putting on a meticulously prepared ceremony for the thousands of people who flock to the area every evening. This spectacle, reminiscent of the rivalry that erupted after their independence, has been going on for years.
As the end of the weekday working hours approaches, people rush towards the border controlled by soldiers, waving their country’s flags and singing songs. Since 1959, they have been coming to witness this ceremony with enthusiasm. For me, it has left an indelible impression as one of the magnificent displays that must be seen on Earth. Nowadays, it has also become a tourism attraction for both countries.
The flag ceremony at the Wagah-Attari border has been performed continuously for 64 years, between India’s Border Security Force and Pakistan Rangers. Rapid, dance-like maneuvers and high leg-lifting movements are characteristic of the ceremony. This spectacle is both a symbol of the enmity between the two countries and an indication of the brotherhood and cooperation between the two nations.
To watch this flag ceremony on the Pakistan-India border, grandstands have been built on both sides where thousands of people can sit. Soldiers use microphones to rile up the crowd. You can even reserve a seat as if you were going to a match through the military’s website.
Fanatical fans get into the spirit with flags in hand, hats adorned with their country’s flags, and faces painted in their national colors, all accompanied by music playing in the background.
Chants, national anthems, and Bollywood songs are enough to excite the crowd. First, a voice rises from one side of the border, “Hindustan Zindabad!” (Long Live India!). Then, from the Pakistan side, in a louder voice to drown out the previous one, “Pakistan Zindabad!” (Long Live Pakistan!). They speak a similar language under the same blue sky and scorching sun. Amidst whistles and cheers, this banter continues throughout the ceremony.
(Photo by Narinder NANU / AFP)
In the middle of the border, there is an open grill and a sliding metal gate adorned with the emblems and flags of both countries. A giant portrait of Pakistan’s founder, Muhammad Ali Jinnah, looks towards the Indian side from atop columns.
Soldiers from both sides come out of their barracks. They march briskly towards the border gate. They walk towards each other with high kicks, sharp glances, and hands on their belts, making eye contact and even exchanging glances to assert dominance.
The announcers invite applause from the crowd with their exciting announcements. The populations of two nuclear-armed countries, whose relatives crossed this border during the 1947 partition, now enjoy themselves with songs and marches as if they were on a picnic.
As the sun sets, the iron gates at the border are opened. The two flags are lowered simultaneously. The flags are folded, and soldiers from both sides shake hands firmly before slamming the border gates shut. The ceremony begins with a march by the soldiers from both countries and ends with the perfect coordination of lowering the flags, every evening just before sunset.
The most beautiful part of the ceremony is the handshake between the Indian and Pakistani soldiers at the border gate, with their feathered turbans. With this heartfelt gesture, you understand that they have rehearsed and choreographed the ceremony together. It’s hard not to think that the soldiers chat and perhaps share tea during breaks. Both countries have trained tall and sturdy soldiers for this ceremony.
This ceremony, which people return from happily, was stained with blood due to a suicide attack on November 2, 2014. Approximately 60 people lost their lives after the attack. Despite this suicide attack, the flag ceremony did not close the next day. It continued uninterrupted, except for a few times during periods of high tension between the two countries.
The legacy of the partition is heartbreaking. Both countries have given rise to powerful radical religious groups. Minorities have further diminished and are more threatened than ever before.
India’s partition is known as one of the largest forced migrations in world history. More than 15 million people embarked on this migration between the two countries. Half of them were Muslims who went to Pakistan, while the other half were Hindus and Sikhs who went to India. Along the way, more than one million people died or were killed. 75,000 women were abducted and raped.
At that time, 25% of India’s population was Muslim, with the majority being Hindu. There were also Sikhs, Buddhists, and other minority religions in the country.
Leaders of the independence movement, Mahatma Gandhi and Nehru, wanted a united India that embraced all beliefs, while Muhammad Ali Jinnah, leader of the All-India Muslim League, wanted partition because he did not want Muslims to be second-class citizens under independence agreements.
This border ceremony is such a powerful idea that you don’t need to see it to believe it. But for those who are still curious, they can watch this fascinating ceremony online. I cannot put into words how incredible this ceremony is. But during my first visit, there were no grandstands on either side. You didn’t even need to buy tickets. The first arrivals got the best spot.
The ceremony at the Wagah border is a kind of bridge between two countries. A reminder of how a colonial history created two enemy nation-states. In its current form, this ceremony is a surprisingly fun parody, repeatedly staged for thousands of spectators, connecting the two sides in an entertaining way. Pakistan Zindabad! Hindustan Zindabad!
*YÜKSEL DURGUT is a journalist with a primary focus on global politics and foreign affairs. He serves as the Foreign Relations Director of the International Journalists Association e.V. and holds the position of Editor-in-Chief at Journalist Post.