Lowering Flags at Wagah Crossing

“Carefully choreographed contempt”

It would be easy to dismiss the daily sunset ceremony at the crossing straddling the storied Grand Trunk Road linking Pakistan’s Lahore and India’s Amritsar, as a caricature of militarism taken to extremes. But I don’t, and here’s why. On the day I visited a few years ago it was indeed reminiscent at first of the famous Monty Python’s “Ministry of Silly Walks” sketch on 1970s television, but an unforeseen event uncovered a very human face behind the mask of blatant hostility.

Each evening for the past sixty years these two nuclear-armed states, which have fought four wars in my lifetime, still treat each other as hostile and are still locked in armed standoff in the mountainous north, have been staging this unique ritual of lowering their respective flags at sunset. It’s been described by Monty Python alumnus Michael Palin in a BBC television program as “carefully choreographed contempt.”

Indian Border Security Force troops and Pakistan Rangers – all specially selected for their imposing stature – conduct the ceremony with a show of highly exaggerated and ritualistic aggression or contempt (how much depending on the political situation) before bleachers full of enthusiastically cheering crowds. Everything is a show of competitive precision.

Even the first shouts of command from each side are competitive – who can be loudest and stretch the breath longest. The Pakistan Rangers, dressed in black, march out from their barracks as the Indian Border Security troops in khaki do the same on theirs. Both sides wear coxcomb helmets that exaggerate their height and are reminiscent of a male peacock display. Uniforms are impeccable and the marching precise and exaggerated; even more so when those selected to be the “stars” for that day march forward to face each other with high-stepping and arrogant arm gestures, encouraged by the roar of their respective audiences. It is more a theatrical sporting event than formal military ceremony.

How it’s supposed to work

After much posturing and gesturing, the halyards of the two national flags are untied, crossed so that the flags will pass each other on the way down, and then lowered with absolute precision so that both remain at exactly the same level. Once the flags are unclipped and marched away, the officers commanding the two contingents march toward each other, salute smartly and exchange a handshake (again with the warmth depending on the political situation). Then the gates are slammed shut for the night. If Wagah Crossing isn’t on your bucket list, it’s still worth checking out any YouTube video that shows how it’s supposed to work. But of course, occasionally things don’t unfold as intended. I was fortunate to be there when they didn’t.

A flag fail

Passions were running high that day, not because of any clash in Kashmir or political dispute, but something much more serious – Pakistan had just lost a crucial cricket match to India! All was going well until the two flags were about to be lowered, when the unfortunate Indian lost control of his halyard, finding the national flag draped over his head rather than at the top of the pole where it belonged. The crowd on the Pakistan side went wild with enthusiastic chants of “Pakistan Zindabad” (Long Live Pakistan). Pakistan Rangers were clearly struggling to keep straight faces, waiting patiently as another soldier scrambled up the flagpole to retrieve the clip while his unfortunate colleague faced the wall, perhaps contemplating another career.

Once the flag was re-hoisted to its proper place, the ceremony proceeded as it should. But zooming in afterward on a high-resolution picture of the final handshake, it was clear that both officers were stifling grins. As the Indian crowd headed home quietly, the Pakistan side remained lively for some time afterward, savouring sweet revenge over the lost cricket match

The handshake

Some in Pakistan and India find the Wagah Crossing ceremony embarrassing, but I came away encouraged. Through six decades of hostility the military professionals on both sides have been presenting a coordinated spectacle, providing a healthy channel for public displays of aggression while, in fact, cooperating closely and professionally. The political mood of the day may be subtly reflected to each other and the spectators through signals ranging from from warmth of handshakes to tone of aggressive posturing, but the event still happens. Personally, I find this admirable, and hope that a century from now, when the two countries are living in harmony, this tradition will continue. To me it’s a unique and endearing ritual that not only says much about this particular relationship between two nations but, more universally, is an encouraging reflection on the human spirit.