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Border Ceremony Draws Crowds in Pakistan, India

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

Slowly and warily, India and Pakistan are trying to make peace after nearly 60 years of hostility and three wars. Yet it's far from peaceful at their biggest border crossing. Every evening, soldiers from both sides confront one another during a military ceremony watched by crowds. Over the years, the ceremony has become known worldwide. Now with peace in the offing, the future of that ceremony is in doubt.

NPR's South Asia correspondent Philip Reeves has just been there and filed this reporter's note.

(Soundbite of music)

PHILIP REEVES: A small man with a large grin is running back and forth. As a Bollywood song blares out, he flourishes a giant Indian flag. The crowd in the spectator stands is delighted. This could almost be a baseball game.

(Soundbite of cheering)

REEVES: Indian women in multicolored saris began to dance. Egged on by the master of ceremonies, people start to chant.

Unidentified Group: (Speaking foreign language)

REEVES: Long live Hindustan, they cry. Salute the motherland.

Unidentified Group: (Speaking foreign language)

REEVES: This is Wagah in the northern Indian state of Punjab. We're at the main border crossing to Pakistan. Here, the world's most populous democracy, a land denominated by Hindus, meets a nation founded as a homeland for Muslims.

Every evening, as the sun sets over the flat and fertile landscape, there are similar scenes.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

REEVES: The Indian crowd grows louder and more feverishly patriotic.

Unidentified Group: (Speaking foreign language)

REEVES: Soon we can hear the chants of Pakistanis in the stands on the other side of the border gates, mostly men with skull caps and beards, assembled just 100 meters away. A shouting match begins.

Unidentified Group: (Speaking foreign language)

REEVES: The crowd's made of tourists who've come to watch the evening flag-lowering parade at Wagah.

Unidentified Male: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Group #2: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Male: (Speaking foreign language)

Unidentified Group #2: (Speaking foreign language)

REEVES: Every day, amid the shouting, Pakistani and Indian border forces take part in the ceremony, as choreographed as a performance of “Swan Lake.'

Unidentified Group #2: (Speaking foreign language)

REEVES: Like matadors, soldiers in lavish uniforms strut and stamp and glare at one another. They puff out their chests like roosters and kick their legs high in the air.

(Soundbite of gate closing)

REEVES: Finally, the gates are closed for the night.

(Soundbite of crowd noise)

REEVES: Indian officials say they're toning down the Wagah ceremony. After all, India and Pakistan are supposed to be making peace. Some people think the ceremony may one day be scrapped all together even though it attracts many thousands of tourists happy to spend their rupees on the beer, snacks and DVDs showing the ceremony, which are on sale nearby. Yet there's more to all this than chauvinism and rivalry.

(Soundbite of cheering)

REEVES: With the ceremony over, the people on the India side surge towards the now closed gate.

Unidentified Group: (Speaking foreign language)

REEVES: For a while, the slogans continue flying across the landscape. But then, bright-eyed and smiling almost bashfully, people begin to wave at the Pakistanis. The Pakistanis wave back.

If you think of the history of this landscape, this makes sense. When Pakistan was born after the partition of India and amid terrible communal bloodletting, Punjab was split in two. Families and friends were separated. Those bonds are not forgotten.

(Soundbite of trumpets)

REEVES: For all the trumpeting and strutting, there are plenty of people who just want peace.

Philip Reeves, NPR News, New Delhi. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Philip Reeves
Philip Reeves is an award-winning international correspondent covering South America. Previously, he served as NPR's correspondent covering Pakistan, Afghanistan, and India.