“That’s Wagah?” my wife Christine asked incredulously when I showed her the front page photograph of turban-clad soldiers in ceremonial dress goose-stepping on a broad esplanade with arches and fluted columns in the background. Could this be the dusty, ramshackle border point between India and Pakistan we crossed in 1975?
We hadn’t seen a photo of the place in 20 years, but now Wagah was in the news. Following the Dec. 13 terrorist attack on the Indian Parliament, India and Pakistan traded barbs and mobilized troops. Wagah is where much of this military might is focused.
Following the partition of the Punjab in 1947, Wagah was the choke point through which five million Sikhs and Hindus flooded to India and an equal number of Muslims sought refuge in Pakistan. Wagah saw gruesome scenes of communal slaughter, of throats cut, women raped, men castrated, and trainloads of refugees arriving at their destination full of corpses.
In 1974 I went to work in Pakistan as the lawyer for the U.S. Agency for International Development, the foreign-aid dispensing arm of the U.S. government. With our children, Anthony and Jocelyn, aged three and six, Christine and I took up residence in Islamabad, Pakistan’s new capital rising in the foothills of the Himalayas.
At the time Pakistan’s charismatic leader Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto was trying to ease the collective pain of losing the country’s third war with India and the loss of its eastern half three years before. Bhutto signed on to an ambitious economic reform program and assiduously courted Western donors.
The West opened its heart and checkbook to Pakistan’s first civilian leader in 20 years. For USAID, it was an exciting time of large projects and ample budgets. As USAID’s lawyer on the spot, my job was to negotiate loans and grants for projects like malaria control, on-farm water management, and family planning. The largest project was Tarbela Dam. Twice the size of the Grand Coulee and towering over Egypt’s Aswan Dam, Tarbela compensated Pakistan for irrigation works handed to India after partition. In August 1974 an explosion ripped Tarbela, and the billion-dollar dam almost literally went down the drain. For years afterwards, contractors, suppliers, engineers, and architects argued about who was responsible for the accident, creating lots of work for lawyers and accountants in the process.
Every day I drove to the Secretariat, a cluster of gleaming white buildings, housing Pakistan’s bureaucracy. There my day was filled with endless project reviews and negotiations, punctuated by the occasional signature of an agreement by the Prime Minister and U.S. Ambassador in a tasteful ceremony in a gilded salon. But the Secretariat I knew best was smoke-filled conference rooms, faded walls, and hallways crowded by an army of menials. There were peons to run errands, bearers to serve bottomless cups of tea and biscuits to officials and guests, scavengers to take away dirty dishes, and sweepers, a debased caste (all Christian) who somehow were expected to keep things clean.
My work also carried me to Karachi, Hyderabad, Sukkur, Multan, and Peshawar, but my favorite Pakistani city was Lahore, home of the Mughal era Shalimar Gardens and Badshahi Mosque. It was tantalizing to think that India was only 20 miles away, but it might as well have been a thousand miles. The border was closed tight.
Then, in 1975, Wagah opened a crack. Bus, rail, and direct air links remained cut, but with an Indian visa, you could cross the border on foot or even drive a car across with the right papers. Christine and I decided to visit India while we had the chance.
The way to India oddly lay 300 miles in the opposite direction from Islamabad. Kabul was the nearest place with an Indian Embassy where I could get visas and a laissez-passer for our well-worn Volvo 240 sedan.
Luckily, I went to Kabul often on business. So on my next trip, I passed by the Indian Embassy and found an agreeable consular officer who over a pleasant cup of tea, stamped Indian visas into our passports and filled out a form for the “importation” of one used Volvo from Afghanistan into India. The approval form didn’t mention Pakistan.
In the waning days of 1975, with Christine, Jocelyn and Anthony waving excitedly to Rosie the ayah, and Aziz the cook, I backed the Volvo out of our driveway and started the 550-mile trek from Islamabad to New Delhi. I picked a Friday, the Muslim prayer day, to begin the trip because the Grand Trunk Road would be free of the top-heavy Bedford trucks that bulled ahead in the center of the road until the other driver lost his nerve and pulled over. On Friday, all one had to watch out for were donkey carts, pedestrians, and the odd Mercedes that took advantage of an empty road to try to break the sound barrier. Then, as now, the five deadly sins of the Pakistani road are bald tires, slick surfaces, ancient cars, hashish, and the fatalism of men who believe their lives are in God’s hands.
In less than four hours we reached Lahore and pushed straight on to Wagah. In a three-week war in 1965 Indian tanks had rolled up to the outskirts of Lahore, and in 1971 nearby villages had been devastated in the fighting. But in 1975, all was calm. At Wagah border officials handled customs and passport formalities from a confusing set of huts and outdoor card tables. Even though only twenty people or so crossed the border each day, the bureaucracy on both sides was so thick that the day was scarcely long enough to complete the paperwork. We left the last Indian checkpoint at Attari just before sundown.
Instantly, one sensed being in a different country. Cows wandered onto the Grand Trunk Road more commonly frequented by 10-ton Tata trucks. Brightly plumed peacocks preened under eucalyptus trees. Water buffalo and pigs wallowed in muddy ponds along the route. Pigs? I did a double take. There were no pigs in Pakistan. Sikhs, with uncut hair folded under turbans, and Hindus rode bicycles, scooters, sputtering motor-rickshaws or walked along the road, many wearing the same shalwar-kameez (baggy trousers with a draw-string waist and loose shirt down to the knees) one saw in Pakistan. Indian women went bare-headed without a dupatta or head scarf. There wasn’t a burqa in sight.
As we approached Amritsar, a mixture of eucalyptus, industrial effluent, burning dung, spices, and incense assaulted our nostrils. Vultures lined rooftops and trees, almost like a grotesque welcoming committee.
We spent the night in Amritsar, the site of the Golden Temple, with its beautiful marble walls decorated with inlaid flower and animal motifs. The temple, surrounded by the pool Amrit Sarovar that gives the city its name, is accessible by a causeway called the Gurus’ bridge. Amritsar and Lahore, two holy cities of the Punjab, one sacred to the Sikhs and the other to Muslims, are a mere 40 miles apart.
Today both cities even share a tourist attraction: the afternoon flag-lowering ceremony at Wagah. The Indian Border Security Force and Pakistani Sutlej Rangers put on a superb display of synchronized marching to the accompaniment of bellowed military commands. The flags of the two nations are then simultaneously lowered. From tiered balconies on both sides of the border (Pakistan’s is divided into separate sections for men and women), Indians and Pakistanis have a rare opportunity to observe each other up close. At four o’clock, large metal gates slam shut and the day ends at Wagah.
According to Amritsar’s tourism website, the spectacle “compares favorably” with the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace. After the Dec. 13 attack on the Indian Parliament, the border show at Wagah turned ugly. Busloads of boisterous Indians and Pakistanis from Amritsar and Lahore came to Wagah to shout patriotic chants and taunt each other. Indian and Pakistani soldiers, tall and menacing, marched aggressively toward each other and gave jaunty salutes before veering off, almost as if close order drill had become a stand-in for war.
But still, I think the nightly entertainment is a good thing. The show takes a degree of cooperation between the two countries, and once cancelled, would be hard to resurrect.
It’s remarkable that the show continued even after land mines were laid, anti-aircraft emplacements were dug, and villagers on both sides of the border were evacuated. An engrained rivalry between India and Pakistan shows up in cricket, field hockey, films, nuclear proliferation, and even city-planning. Islamabad, where I lived for four years, was built by the Greek city planner Doxiades as a Pakistani attempt to outdo India’s Chandigarh, the planned city designed by the modernist architect Le Corbusier.
Competitive marching at the border is cut from the same mold. Letting people blow off steam at the border is infinitely preferable to a shooting war.
Wagah has already seen enough history for one lifetime.