The 3,200-kilometre long dividing line between India and Pakistan has border-crossings at four points. The most popular is the Wagha-Attari border, Wagha being the name of a village upon the international border on the Pakistani side, around 23 kilometres from Lahore. The Indian village, Attari, lies a mere three kilometres away. The boundary splitting the Punjabs on both sides of the border runs for around 500 kilometres from a total length of 3,200 kilometres, including 1,200 kilometres along Sindh, 1,200 kilometres of Line of Control between Azad Kashmir and the Indian side of Kashmir, and a working boundary between Sialkot and Jammu.
Wagha upon the border is more of a wilderness than a village. Bushlands run the area for several kilometres, and the single road leading to the area is heavily punctuated with checkposts. The noose of security was tightened some more after a deadly suicide bomb attack at the pavilion, on November 2, 2014, which killed 60 people and injured a hundred more. Women and children visiting the popular site were among the casualties. A terrorist faction owned the responsibility, during the on-going Zarb-e-Azab Operation. Later media reports claimed that the mastermind had been arrested and taken to task.
The Wagha border is busier than the other three between India and Pakistan, the neighbouring countries that are deeply entrenched in a love-hate relationship. Other than Wagha, near Lahore, there is the Ganda Singh Wala Border crossing, with a gate and pavilion, seemingly a miniature replica of Wagha itself, in Kasur, along the River Sutlej. Ganda Singh Wala, the village along the international border, is named after its Sikh tribal leader, and is joined with Hussainiwala, a village on the Indian side named after a godman, Hussainiwala Baba, a Muslim.
Interestingly, this point is also the place where the freedom fighter Bhagat Singh was secretly cremated by the British Police on 23rd March, 1931. Singh’s hometown is in Jarranwala, Faisalabad, in Pakistani Punjab. He got his education at Islamia College, Lahore, and was imprisoned in Central Jail, Lahore, where he was killed before it was time to hang him. The Ganda Singh Wala border too holds a flag-crossing ceremony with spectators from both sides to cheer them on. However, trade and transit are not allowed.
The Sulemanki border crossing, in the Okara district of Pakistani Punjab, meets the Fazlika Village in India. The crossing is similar to that of Ganda Singh Wala, with a flag retreating ceremony held every day, just before sundown.
The Wagha border has been the functional border for tourism and trade between the two countries since 1959, which is also the year when the dramatic, over-the-top display of valour on every evening began at the border. Every day, just before sunset, the flags of both the countries are lowered in a ceremony, initiated by what could be called a unique war-dance. Both Indian Border Security Force and the Pakistan Rangers try their best to outdo each other with their peacock struts, sharp glares, and moves. Pakistan Rangers, the paramilitary responsible for border security and patrolling, sends four of their tallest men to march towards the gate that opens onto a pathway, the thin strip of no man’s land stretched out at a few yards, ending where the gate for the Attari border opens, into the Indian pavilion. The tall men, dressed in black shalwar kameez and black turbans with an even taller ‘shimla’ shake hands with the Indian counterparts to symbolise goodwill after the face-off, cross their flags, shut the gates, and march back.
The theatricality of the act attracts many spectators daily from both sides of the border, which is why a massive pavilion has been built on either side of the walkway that leads to India.
The Indian side of the crossing has an impression of a main gilded dome, and a couple of smaller ones, reminding Pakistanis of the gilded Gurdwaras in the Pakistani Punjab, as well as the Samadhi of Raja Ranjit Singh next to the Lahore Fort, all of which bear the same gilded domes — a trademark of Sikh architecture.
Twice a year, Sikh yatrees visit Pakistan for religious purposes, since some very important places of worship and of reverence are located within Western Punjab — the Gurdwara Dera Sahib (Lahore), Gurdwara Nankana Sahib (Nankana), Gurdwara Darbar Sahib (Narowal), Gurdwara Panja Sahib (Hasan Abdal), and Gurdwara Chowa Sahib in Jhelum. For travelling, the route of Wagha border is adopted by these yatrees as well as those who visit Pakistan for tourism, official work, or personal meetings.
The Kartarpur Corridor project is one way to facilitate the pilgrims who for years have been looking at the Gurudwara with binoculars and telescopes to complete their worship; Darshan; from the Indian side of the border. For travelling purposes, the Samjhauta Express and Thar Express had been used. So far, however, the Samjhauta Express, which had been shuttling passengers to and fro the two countries, across a very ‘happening’ border, was functional twice a week — Mondays and Thursdays. On April 9 this year, when India announced to strip Kashmir of its autonomous status, it was closed along with the Munabao-Karachi train, the Thar Express, for an indefinite period. The minister for railways was quoted as saying that the trains would not run on the tracks while he had his portfolio.
Stephen Alter in his book, Amritsar to Lahore: A Journey across the India-Pakistan Border, writes of the experience of coming to Lahore: “Early in the morning, just after dawn, crowds of travellers begin to gather, arriving in minibuses and auto rickshaws. Most of them are Indian Muslims who have relatives in Pakistan. They congregate under a line of pipal trees along a side street next to the High Commission. For most of the day, these travellers wait in the shade, while their visa applications are processed. None of them are permitted entry into the compound and the only means of communication with the Pakistani authorities is a single square hole in the wall, shoulder high and much too narrow for anyone to crawl into it. The travellers queue up in front of the opening and pass their documents through the wall-like supplicant at a shrine. Under the spreading branches of the pipal trees, freelance clerks sit at rickety wooden desks, where they fill out cyclostyled forms… Everyone had a worried look on their faces.”
Among Pakistanis, there are stories related to the border from 1947. Immigrants from Indian Punjab came to the Pakistani Punjab in 1947, via the train, on foot, alone, and in caravans. From Jammu, there were migrations to Sialkot, a city where a majority of people today are of Kashmiri descent and through the border of Sindh which runs along the Indian states of Gujarat and Rajasthan. Even if those are history, the present continues to blaze with stories about the most erratic international Line of Control: one between Azad Kashmir and the Indian side of J&K.
The writer has authored two books of fiction, including Unfettered Wings: Extraordinary Stories of Ordinary Women (2018)