[an error occurred while processing this directive]
BBC News
watch One-Minute World News
Last Updated: Saturday, 13 March, 2004, 16:45 GMT
Batting for unity in Pakistan

By Crispin Thorold
BBC correspondent, Wagah border crossing

There can be few sporting events that evoke quite such passion. For India and Pakistan, Saturday's one-day cricket match in Karachi marked the first time in 14 years that India has toured Pakistan.

Despite their different cultures, the two countries also share a passion for ceremony, celebrated each day in a flag-lowering ritual at the Wagah border crossing.

Pakistani Ranger (right) with an Indian Border Security Force soldier after
Indian and Pakistani soldiers perform an elaborate daily ritual

"This is the clash of civilisations", my self-appointed guide exclaimed with rather too much glee.

For Rajesh, the daily flag-lowering ceremony at the Wagah border, made perfect sense.

Perhaps he had noticed my bewilderment. The display below us certainly called for clarification.

Indian and Pakistani soldiers, kitted out in full dress uniform, were embarking on an elaborate and lengthy performance of staged aggression.

After a traumatic life as a Hindu born in Indian administered Kashmir, Rajesh was on something of a personal pilgrimage.

This was, he claimed, his 100th trip to Wagah.

Soldier after soldier paraded to the border. The closed gates that mark that arbitrary line were thrown open.

A carefully choreographed standoff followed, then another, and yet one more.

On one side men and women are segregated. On the other, families sit together

Each confrontation was greeted with cheers from the watching crowds. There are viewing stands on either side.

After at least 20 minutes, with the sun fast descending, the Indian and Pakistani flags were finally lowered.

This event has become something of a journalistic cliché. It makes great copy.

Worlds apart

Map of India-Pakistan border
Wagah is the only road border crossing between the two countries

The differences between India and Pakistan are plain to see.

On one side men and women are segregated. On the other, families sit together.

In India the watching crowd is a riot of colour. Across the border, white robes dominate.

The strains of the azan, the call to prayer, compete with Bhangra beats.

And all of this is in the heart of the Punjab, the region that saw the worst violence of Partition.

In 1947 Muslims fled through this area into what was then West Pakistan. Hindus and Sikhs travelled in the opposite direction.

Trainloads of people were slaughtered. The soldiers sent to stop the carnage were often all too keen to join in.

In the end, millions migrated, over 10 million by some estimates. Scores of thousands were left dead.

The Wagah crossing is a legacy of those events.

Wars, political tensions and severe restrictions on travel have only heightened the mystery and misunderstanding.

Confusion

Two Punjabi villages are nestled on either side of the border. They are sleepy and dusty.

In Pakistan, locals settle down to tea. They were to a man - and there were only men - Muslims.

A soldier quizzed me about the 'free sex' that was, he informed me, readily available in India
Hajji, the eldest, remembered his childhood in what is now India, with affection.

He was the only person in the teashop who had ever been. All the others were born after Partition, and have never had a chance to visit a village just a few miles away.

A soldier quizzed me about the "free sex" that was, he informed me, readily available in India.

My insistence that I had never come across anything of the sort was no disappointment. It merely proved to him my inadequacy as a man.

Everyone wanted an easing of the tensions between the two countries, but when Kashmir was mentioned the conversation became heated.

The Indian government is repressing the Muslims, all agreed. "Peace can never be possible", they argued, "until Kashmir is free", although there was no consensus on what that meant.

On the Indian side of the border, people were intrigued about what Pakistan could possibly be like. "After all", one said, "I have never been to a theocracy run by mullahs."

Indistinguishable

They imagined a fierce state where clerics, or soldiers, or intelligence chiefs control every aspect of life. But, as in Pakistan, there was no animosity towards local people.

The similarities were astounding. Bullock carts wheel through the villages. In this relatively fertile region, most live from the land.

The shared grammar and vocabulary of street Hindi and Urdu meant my diabolical Hindi was as misunderstood in Pakistan as it is in India.

PEACE TALKS TIMETABLE
Foreign secretaries Shashank (left) and Riaz Khokhar in Islamabad in Febuary 2004
March 29 and 30: Talks on a bus service between Pakistan's Sindh province and India's Rajasthan state
March or April: Border security officials to talk on smuggling and drug trafficking
May: Experts discuss nuclear confidence-building measures
May or June: Foreign secretaries to discuss Kashmir
July: Talks on terrorism and economic co-operation
August: Summit between foreign ministers

Above all else the Pakistanis and Indians I met that day were mainly Punjabis.

Their shared language, cultural heritage and geography, which meant they had far more in common with each other, than many of their fellow countrymen.

Back at the flag-lowering ceremony I was still scratching my head. Rajesh's catch-all phrase "clash of civilisations", borrowed from an American academic, seemed far too simplistic to explain the ritual unfolding below.

Sure the Pakistani crowd chanted "Allah-u-Akbar" - "God is great" - and the Indians responded with "Vande Mataram", regarded by many as India's national song.

But the biggest cheer of the afternoon came when an Indian and Pakistani soldier shook hands, a symbol one woman argues, of "what unites us rather than divides us".

As the Pakistani and Indian governments crawl towards a rapprochement, the countries' leaders would be well served to listen to their people.

In the words of an Indian immigration official: "Relations are very cordial between us. It is only the politicians who are bloody idiots."


From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 13 March, 2004 at 1130 GMT on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.



SEE ALSO:
Country profile: Pakistan
04 Mar 04  |  Country profiles
Country profile: India
04 Mar 04  |  Country profiles
Is Pakistan's nuclear programme dying?
03 Mar 04  |  South Asia
Vajpayee's five years in power
01 Mar 04  |  South Asia
US hails Kashmir 'roadmap' talks
19 Feb 04  |  South Asia
Pakistani wares on show in Delhi
03 Mar 04  |  Business


RELATED INTERNET LINKS:
The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites

PRODUCTS AND SERVICES

News Front Page | Africa | Americas | Asia-Pacific | Europe | Middle East | South Asia
UK | Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health
Have Your Say | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific