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Conflict

Ceremony of brotherhood at India-Pakistan border

India and Pakistan have a complex relationship. The latest exchange of gunfire at the Line of Control in the Kashmir region showed that - but so does a bizarre daily ritual at the border.

 Pakistani and Indian soldiers lower the flags of their countries during a daily ceremony at the Wagha border near Lahore on July 17, 2011. The Wagha border is the only road border crossing between India and Pakistan. Every day a retreat ceremony takes place called 'the lowering of the flags' which has been held since 1959. The event is open to spectators who are able to view the spectacle from one side of either country's border. During the 45 minute ceremony Indian and Pakistani guards high-kick and stamp in a choreographed routine which ends in the lowering of both flags and the closing of the border gates. AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI (Photo credit should read BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)

Indien Pakistan Grenze Grenzübergang Wagah Punjab Fahnenzeremonie

They scream untill their lungs hurt, preparing for the daily military shadow-boxing. The border guards on one side of the border are exact mirror images of their counterparts on the other - goose-stepping soldiers, whose chests are thrust out, legs flying, arms whirling. Their faces rigid: Even the faintest suggestion of a smile is not allowed. Every movement is perfectly synchronized, and the fans on both sides of the border are out of control.

Screaming soldiers, cheering fans

It is just before sunset on the Wagah Border. This checkpoint is the only open road between India and Pakistan. Every evening, thousands of fans stream onto the stands erected on both sides of the border to watch the orchestrated, synchronized military flag ceremony. And professional whips on both sides make sure that the fans outbid each other in their nationalistic cheering orgies.

"Long live India" – there are some 20,000 fans on the Indian side. "Long live Pakistan" - perhaps 5,000 on the Pakistani side. More than 1.2 billion people live in India, while the population of Pakistan numbers 180 million.

Grenzübergang Wagah an der pakistanisch-indischen Grenze.
Foto von Sandra Petersmann
South Asia Correspondent
ARD German Public Radio Network

Thousands show up every days to watch the ritual

Letting off steam

The two countries share a long common history. But much blood has been spilt since their partition and independence in 1947 - in massacres, skirmishes and wars over perennial issues like power, vanity, religion, land, and water. But the common border is like a wall, behind which nuclear weapons are kept, and the border ceremony is a safety valve for nationalists on both sides.

"My country is the biggest and greatest in the world," said one young man, passionately waving an Indian flag. But then came the inevitable chorus: "Pakistan Murdabad" - "death to Pakistan", young men chanted.

Pakistani (C) and Indian soldiers perform a daily ceremony of lowering India and Pakistan's flags at the Wagha border near Lahore on July 17, 2011. The Wagha border is the only road border crossing between India and Pakistan. Every day a retreat ceremony takes place called 'the lowering of the flags' which has been held since 1959. The event is open to spectators who are able to view the spectacle from one side of either country's border. During the 45 minute ceremony Indian and Pakistani guards high-kick and stamp in a choreographed routine which ends in the lowering of both flags and the closing of the border gates. AFP PHOTO/BEHROUZ MEHRI (Photo credit should read BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images)

The uniforms are not the only similarity between the two sides

Political animosity

But Indians and Pakistanis are culturally as similar as the uniforms, boots and goose-stepping of their soldiers at the synchronized Wagah spectacle. One grandfather in the crowd concurred. "The ceremony is meant to show people that concord is better that discord," he said. "We have the same biography. The animosities play out on the political level, not the human level."

His grandson added that the cheering, roaring Pakistanis on the other side were really like brothers.

Then the flags are rolled up, the soldiers shake hands. They close the border gate, turn on their heels, and march in opposite directions. Until tomorrow, when they will meet again - cheered on by thousands of spectators on both sides of the border.

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