A colorful daily hate ceremony

SUN JOURNAL

Nationalism: At the only road crossing between India and Pakistan, thousands gather daily for the joint/rival lowering of the flags.

January 06, 2002|By Claudia Kolker | Claudia Kolker,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

WAGAH, INDIA - The Hate starts promptly at 4:45 p.m.

As India and Pakistan trade shells, diplomacy and intermittent threats of war, here at this checkpoint on a dusty plain their armies take part daily in another, more mysterious exchange.

Wagah, the lone road crossing for the countries, is a place of wood smoke, Sikhs in wooden carts - and outsized soldiers twirling with their rivals in a dance of war.

In a ritual that dates to the 1947 founding of their nations, guards on both sides strut and kick extravagantly, then meet in a small space between their territories to lower their flags.

Frenzied crowds, their faces flushed, wave fists and chant from bleachers on both sides. Nothing, on this border seamed by an electric fence, divides the groups but two gates yards apart, festooned with metal stars and flowers.

To outsiders watching the nations' latest crisis, the Wagah ritual seems baffling - an orderly Two Minutes Hate out of Orwell's 1984. Decoded, though, it reveals the deep and often ancient bonds of these uneasy neighbors.

On the margins of a violent region, Wagah tends toward bureaucratic dullness. Kashmir, bloodied by near-daily shelling, lies just to the north.

But Wagah offers a nexus for more peaceful interactions. Blue-clad porters swarm the road, bearing crates of Pakistani fruit for Indian inspection. Until last week, when bus and train service was stopped, travelers climbed out here to get their visas stamped.

Even in the latest flash of tensions, the flag ritual carries on.

It starts this way: The hazy afternoon turns saffron, and patriotic songs sweep over nearby wheat fields from checkpoint loudspeakers. High school boys throng at the checkpoint, calling to their friends like flocking birds.

Suddenly - waved in by turbaned soldiers - young women clutching husbands' arms, men toting bemused toddlers, dash toward the seats.

By 4:45 p.m., 3,000 Indians have massed atop the whitewashed bleachers. Across the gate, in Wagah, Pakistan, perhaps 300 Pakistanis settle into their own stands. Though the area is equidistant from Lahore, Pakistan, and Amritsar, India, the Indian city is a tourist attraction, drawing more spectators, residents say.

Below them all, the road unspools, cleaved at the so-called zero line by the gates. Between the gates, on a path, the flags of the two nuclear-armed powers face each other down.

A hush. Then inside Pakistan, a guard emits an eerie yell. He looks in many ways identical to his rivals. Pakistani guards wear black, Indians wear olive. But all, broad-shouldered and mustachioed, tower 6 feet 5 or taller, and stride about in sashes, cravats and cockades that arc above their hats like rooster combs.

The yell from Pakistan electrifies both sides. Spectators let out joyous cheers. In India, five guards stride toward the gate. Mile-long legs fold like pocketknives until the knees touch noses. Outsized arms swing in huge parabolas. Then, in crisp precision, they all brake.

On each side, one soldier stalks ahead, asking his commandant's leave to approach the flag.

Both crowds are on their feet.

"BHARAT MATA!" Boys and men, grandmothers and toddlers howl. A sweating youth in a white shirt shakes as he leads the cheers. "Victory for India!" he barks.

The smaller Pakistani crowd bravely pounds a dent into the noise. "PAKISTAN! Allah Akbar!"

One by one, the soldiers swagger toward their flags. Both armies pick their guards from tribes known justly for Apollonian male beauty. But to a Westerner, the titans' movements seem incongruous. It looks like parody when one flings the gate ajar and stomps inside, shimmying each massive shoulder. His colleagues follow, legs catapulted vertically.

But even to the ignorant, the guards' expertise is clear. As loudspeakers bid both the crowds to stand, the enemies, together now on neutral ground, align beneath the flags, just two feet apart.

They'll pace together now.

First they snap into two facing lines. In each, three Indians brush shoulders with three Pakistanis. Iron-faced, a guard from either army grasps the rope of his flag, crossing the cords into a mighty X.

Inch by inch, the flags furl down. The timing is precise; the man who hurries, after all, will unforgivably distort the X. In silent unison, the flags fall into waiting hands. With mirror motion, they are folded into squares. Then sharply, like migrating geese, the companies abruptly wheel, split off and stream home.

The last ones slam the gates behind them.

"HIN-DU-STAN!" India's crowd bellows. The ceremony's done.

As the crowd flows from the bleachers, the few foreign tourists look stunned. What does it mean? How can nations hissing war perform this daily pas-de-deux?

"It's not serious," speculates Hili Kopilovich, a visitor from Israel. She's here Dec. 13, hours after suspected Pakistani militants assaulted New Delhi's Parliament. Wagah's ceremony, she says, perplexed, feels "like a soccer game."

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