India and Pakistan hate each other - but do a bizarre choreographed dance together every day
Some countries were destined never to get along. In particular, countries that have waged three wars against one another, launched an aggressive nuclear arms race and bickered over a 17,000-foot glacier. India and Pakistan were never going to be ones to set their differences aside to kiss and make up. But, then again, they were rather unlikely candidates to bring their soldiers together to do a carefully choreographed performance and, as unbelievable as it sounds, this is actually something that happens every single day.
That's right, every day just before sunset crowds of thousands of people gather at the India-Pakistan border to see the counterpart country's security forces come together to put on a show eccentric enough for any pantomime. When one hears the "Indian-Pakistan border", it's hard to imagine anything but high security and bad feeling in the air, but the border ceremony instead feels like a bizarre mix of hostility and goodwill that is difficult to locate anywhere else on the planet.
The Wagah ceremony often referred to as the "Beating Retreat" on an international level, began back in 1959. When the idea first emerged, it was no doubt considered a baffling concept. Why would two countries which habour such bad feeling towards one another meet at the border to perform elaborate dance-like manoeuvres after all that had happened in the past - and all that was happening in the present?
Although the British had partitioned the original India into two independent nations in order to avoid further bloodshed between religions, of course it had only worked to provoke further massacre. After the Indian Independence Bill took effect on 15 August 1947, it's estimated that 1-2 million people died, with violent clashes resulting as a consequence of one of the largest mass migrations in modern history. By the time 1959 rolled around, the first bloody war over Kashmir had been waged and, Pakistan refusing to back down, another was to come in 1965.
But both governments were adamant that it would be a ceremony of brotherhood, even if the pair were two siblings who did not by any means get along. So forth, the bizarre event has taken place for almost 60 years, each evening kickstarted by the same blustering presentation from the soldiers and ending in the patriotic raising of the two nation's flags.
So what exactly happens? It all begins with specially-appointed and trained Indian and Pakistani infantryman standing to attention on each side of the gate as they wait for the sun to set. From the perspective of the Indian side, when the sun goes down two uniformed soldiers suddenly appear at the far end of the road looking like they mean business. The crowd goes wild as the security forces begin to ferociously march down down the road. Their eyes crazed, they storm down the pathway in perfect synchronicity ferociously kicking their legs as high as they can in the air.
As the gate that separates the two long-lost countries opens, the Pakistani soldiers appear hands on hips. Eyes locked, the two countries meet and do every in their power to outwit one another, whether it be rapid high kicks or determinedly slamming their feet into the ground. After an astounding display, it ends as dramatically as it starts with a brusque handshake between the soldiers and the closing of the gates. All in all, the situation resembles some sort of Monthy Python-esque sketch comedy.
But is this performance of a lifetime genuinely conducive to goodwill between the two countries, or is it honestly just a chance for them to spread their feathers and flash their superiority? Ultimately, it's both. A daily war is being fought at the Wagah border, yet, at the same time, the event has the feel of a football game, with smiley face potatoes on offer at the snack bar and an audience made up of families, school trips and tourists.
The ceremony certainly has had its bumps in the road over the years. In 2014, 110 people were injured in a suicide attack on the Pakistan side when an attacker detonated a 5kg explosive in his vest 500 metres from the crossing point. In addition, in 2010, the border guard's "aggressive gestures" were done away with, amid fears that it provoked hostility between the two nations.
Sushant Singh, a military affairs expert and associate editor of the Indian Express, has named the display “outrageous” and argued for it to be cancelled based upon the grounds that it promotes anti-Pakistan sentiment. He said: “It makes no sense. You could have film actors doing it. There is no reason for a professional force to be spending so much time and energy doing something that has so little value — except for the fact it creates great PR for the Border Security Force.”
However, it's attendance speaks for itself. Every day thousands come to watch the extraordinary public display of hostility and camaraderie at its finest. And many of them insist that the comedic value of the event actually does help to improve relations. "I felt like it was more lighthearted than anything else," 25-year-old Francesca Kennedy told VT. "I know the situation between the two is pretty awful, but I don't think the ceremony comes completely from hate. There was actually a really good feeling in the air the few times I went to watch, a friendly competitiveness."
Regardless of who thinks what of the border ceremony, the facts speak for themselves. Relations between India and Pakistan in recent years have been up and down, to say the least. Despite Narendra Modi becoming the first Indian Prime Minister to visit Pakistan since 2004, repeated acts of cross-border terrorism, intensified battle on the Kashmir border and banning of each another's film and TV stars sees the relationship continue to be oppressed by the weight of the past.
Like a Shakespeare tragedy, it sometimes seems that India and Pakistan were always doomed to end in tragedy. But, then again, if they can come together for a daily ceremony, maybe there's hope for them yet.