India has as many, if not more, Muslims than the nation that was allegedly carved out for them in Pakistan in 1947.
The irony is further etched in by the strong similarities that remain among Pakistani and Indian culture like most products of British map-making, lines on paper did not a border make. Pakistanis and Indians at least North Indians both speak Hindustani though it’s called Hindi in India and Urdu in Pakistan (see Abdul Jamil Khan’s The Politics of Language: Urdu/Hindi An Artificial Divide for a view on this issue). They both dress traditionally in modified versions of a shalwar kameez, they celebrate important family rituals such as weddings in similar ways, they eat similar foods, and the list goes on.
Few things personify the remarkable similarities between Pakistan and India and the excruciating attempts to look past them in order to somehow validate a political decision to divide a nation without the public’s consent than what happens on the Punjab border between Pakistan and India every single day.
Just before sunset, for around 60 years now, there has been a drawn out and choreographed confrontation between Pakistani and Indian Punjabis. It’s a proud performance and bleachers have been fitted in accordingly on both sides of a stylised iron gate at the borderline. There are feathers and drums, tassels and military footwear: on both sides it is the Wagah Border ceremony, a tradition that has at times been a barometer of Pakistan-Indian relations but is mostly an enduring indicator of the strong ties that, despite political posturing and British cartography, the people of Pakistan and India maintain.
Wagah the village lies between Lahore in Pakistan’s Punjab and Amritsar in India’s Punjab and was itself split in two during the 1947 sketching, leaving a little bit of Wagah for both sides. As the Pakistan Rangers and the Border Security Forces of India strut and stamp their way through the 45 minute ceremony, huge crowds on both sides cheer and clap according to instructions given on their side.
There is no disorder and there is no disrespect.
If you look closely, you’ll notice the rapport the guards have, the wink here or smile there that demonstrates the camaraderie that exists between these neighbors whose cooperative choreography entices the revelers and somehow also comforts them. On the Pakistani side, there’s an old, toothless man whose team spirit could give an American high school cheerleader a run for her money. Holding his Pakistani flag with military precision, he’ll look you dead in the eye if he didn’t feel your cheer was loud enough. “Speak up!,” he’ll shout and you know he won’t let you get away with marveling at the spectacle. He knows it’s a spectacle because the other side is also his home, where his family used to live, where some of it still does. He also knows that stirring up the crowd is what has kept this ceremony going for years the budgets have increased with the number of visitors, and the costumes, with their fancy folded crowns and shiny medals, have become finer.
On the Indian side, as seen from Pakistani Wagah, the eyes are watching with intent. Often, during the pauses when the soldiers are not blocking the view, it becomes clear that the fascination is more with the Pakistanis than with the show. The Indians look over as the Pakistanis almost certainly do with intense curiosity and yet total recognition: those people on the other side, the eyes seem to say, that could have been us. One Indian is filming the Pakistanis in the intervals, setting aside his camera during the show. At the end, he smiles and waves. Maybe his cousin ended up in Lahore instead of Amritsar.
“It’s a mix of emotions,” a young Pakistani father tells me after the show. “I feel proud to be Pakistani, this is my homeland,” he says “but I could just as well have been on the other side.” For him, and no doubt millions of others, this daily exhibition seems ever so relevant today, as the big semi-final match between these two sides of the border stirs up fresh emotions and old memories and as Pakistanis venture to the Indian side once again, for a brief interval of friendly sport on a once shared land.
The writer is a US-based political analyst and a former Producer for BBC and Al-Jazeera. Follow her on Twitter @ShirinSadeghi