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Allah meets Bollywood on Indo-Pak border

Wagah has always been charged with symbolism. A daily ritual of confrontation here between uniformed, quick marching border guards has become a crowd puller.

india Updated: Dec 30, 2007 19:30 IST

Shouts of "The only superpower is Allah" rose to a crescendo as hundreds of bearded Pakistanis raised fists at Indians yards away.

Across the two countries' border, the Indians retaliated with their own trademark anthem -- loud Bollywood music.

Welcome to Wagah, one of the few border crossings at one of the world's nuclear flashpoints, a non-descript place a few miles from Lahore in eastern Pakistan.

Wagah has always been charged with symbolism. A daily ritual of confrontation here between uniformed, quick marching border guards has become a crowd puller - part nationalistic theatre, part showmanship and part exaggerated diplomacy.

On a recent trip I found a schizophrenic atmosphere at the border, where simple humane touches one hour mixed with patriotic fervour the next, reflecting how these two nuclear armed foes with a common heritage relate to each other.

India and Pakistan have fought three wars since 1947, but since a peace process started a few years ago there have been small steps to make the crossing easier.

So, with planes fully booked in mid-December, I opted to travel overland from New Delhi to the Reuters office in Islamabad.

Only 30-40 people a day cross the border, a lone road and a few buildings in Punjab's agricultural heartland. In India, my passport was quickly stamped. No one checked my bags.

I walked a hundred yards, past barbed wire, and approached the metal-fenced border. There was near silence, no traffic, hardly a soul in sight. It was a South Asian no man's land.


Games we play
Then an open gate and a painted white line on the tarmac -- the frontier. I thought I'd test the border guards' attentiveness by stepping across the white line and quickly stepping back into India. No one raised an eyebrow.

No wonder. A laughing man had just handed his grandchild across the line to a Pakistani, who handed him back.

The man turned out to be an Indian customs official.

"We are all friends here," Virat Dutt said, enjoying what I presume was a break from work. "This is like a game we play."

It was not a game for everyone. A Pakistani prisoner waited in India to cross. Officials said he had been imprisoned for eight years in India for illegally crossing the border, one of hundreds of often poor and innocent victims of geopolitics.

I walked across the line again. So relaxed was the Pakistani side that I almost missed their checkpoint -- a makeshift desk.

Then moneychangers made a grab for my custom and taxi drivers hounded me. South Asia returned.

I sipped tea at a stall in Pakistan, waiting for a ceremony that has been held daily, interrupted by war, since 1956.


Strutting the stuff
Thousands of Indians had gathered in concrete terraces by the Indian side. Patriotic Bollywood music blared out. In Pakistan only a few hundred gathered, the men segregated from women covered with veils or head scarves.

An old white-bearded Pakistani draped in a national flag whooped up a patriotic frenzy with the crowd.

Guards in peacock hats began a series of goosesteps to the white line, stopping inches away. They grunted, stamped and made Rambo-like gestures at their Indian counterparts.

It was all choreographed, aimed at out-staging each other with faster and higher goosesteps in a kind of military ballet. Then the two last guards shook hands, so quickly it could easily be missed. Their faces registered exaggerated contempt.

The gates then closed, locked until morning.

I wondered what more accurately reflected the real relations between the two nations -- my carefree border crossing where an Indian official allowed a grandchild to be held by a Pakistani, or the Bollywood patriotism and religious fervour?

Probably both. Relations are better than ever before, but many are cautious about how long peace will last. Some worry the killing of Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto could cause militant violence to spread over the border.

I asked a border guard why so few Pakistanis turned up to the ceremony compared with the thousands of Indians.

"India is just a bigger country," he said in immaculate English. "And Indian tour operators are more effective."