No Man’s land: the Wagah-Attari Border

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Located at a short distance of 24 kilometers from Lahore, Wagah is a small village in Pakistan and placed strategically on the Grand Trunk Road and serves as the main goods and railway station between India and Pakistan. The Indian counterpart is Attari and both serve as the only official land border crossing between India and Pakistan. The Radcliffe Line that divides them was the scene of both immense horror and gratitude for those fleeing to the “promised lands” in August 1947. Poignantly for writers such as Sadat Hasan Manto, many migrants were torn between the two spaces of no man’s land. This legacy continues today for those divided by this border.

The Wagah-Attari border is more accessible to foreigners who cross the border rather than the citizens of India and Pakistan. Having used this route numerous times, it brings up all sorts of surprises every time. There is always a sense of uncertainty about the political climate between the two countries, which can change at short notice. When relations are good between them, the border seems a little more open and less hostile, there is generally more traffic of people, especially people with green and blue passports. Otherwise, there are hardly that many people using the border only the diplomats, foreigners and the select few. I am one of the privileged few. The Pakistani’s always ask me if I’ve enjoyed my stay and have I faced any problems? I always reassure them that I’ve had a wonderful time. The Indians it has to be said are less talkative, though on occasions I have been “treated” to cups of chai.

There is usually plenty of dramatic material for the writers, artists, and peaceniks etc that want to spend time here for inspiration. There is sadness as people (de)part, despair as people fail to crossover due to lack of proper paperwork, there are covert (or not so covert) spies keeping an eye on passengers, and then there are security/customs people who are keen to show their power and within the ordinary, there are the money changers and inquisitive coolies working hard, often in the full sun. But there are always people wondering about the “other”.

When I first crossed this border, over fifteen years ago, the border was a basic set-up in old colonial bungalows. You could literally walk across from one side to the other. Today, both have made this border into an airport style, elaborate process with scanners and plenty of formalities and paperwork. Previously the coolies were employed to help carry people’s luggage to the international boundary that divides the two countries and they would also exchange goods that were permissible under trade agreements; the two carried on side by side. Now trade is exchanged more formally via the goods and transit terminal and the coolies make their livelihoods through the meagre travellers passing through. Most of the coolies belong to Wagah and Attari and come from a generation of families who have lived and worked in this border area. It is unlike any other place in India or Pakistan. They have seen many changes and have many tales to share, often from divided migrant families themselves.

The Indian Border Security Force and the Pakistani Rangers have their daily ritual of lowering of the flag ceremony at the end of the day before sunset. Immaculately dressed, in Indian khaki and Pakistani Black, the soldiers walk and strut in their fast paced and intimidating style. Michael Palin, during his travels around the world, compared this to the Ministry of Silly Walks from the Monty Python sketches; this is not too far-fetched. Often referred to as the strut of the peacocks, this is a show of prowess, power, and pride of the most superficial nature. Hundreds of Indians and Pakistanis flock to see this spectacle of jingoistic and patriotic display. Few would wonder about how this well choreographed ceremony actually happens. It is in many ways an obscene drama that takes time to practice and perfect, and requires the two forces to work together. They do this away from the public gaze, so as to not taint the public image. This tradition started back in the 1950s has evolved now to only provoke the nationalist desire to fuel this antagonistic relationship between the two countries. It has continued to grow, attracting foreign as well as local tourists and the seating arrangements at the border are yet again being upgraded and expanded to accommodate the demand. Large crowds chant “Pakistan Zindabad!” or “Jai Hind!” to show their patriotism, waving their flags with unwavering allegiance to the idea of India and Pakistan. It is now nearly seventy years when the Radcliffe Line was drawn, and if anything, it seems this border has become even harder than previously.

Some useful links:

Peacock at Sunset by Frank Jacobs: https://opinionator.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/07/03/peacocks-at-sunset/

The Wagah border ceremony in India: https://adventuresofagoodman.com/wagha-india-pakistan-border-history/

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