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7 - Passage to India - Long Live Pakistan!In spite of plentiful evidence all around me - the collective tsunami of ambling animals, rumbling rickshaws, the relentless noise and the powerful smells - I still couldn't believe how close my overland journey had taken me to the Indian border. So I had to go and check it out.
Possibly the only border I could think of in the world between two countries which was mostly closed to citizens of either country, but was open for foreigners. The border area was predictably dripping with people attempting to make livelihoods from all sorts of temporary retailing activities, selling flags and alarm clocks to the shameless pursuit of currency rip offs.
It was standing room only for latecomers on the border terracing. India, the land which offered democracy and beer, was within touching distance. A short drive down the road into India was the city of Amritsar, the 'Nectar Pool'. The words Amrit Savar meant 'promise of sweet pleasure'. Remembering all too vividly some of my last experiences in India, sweet pleasure seemed rather an optimistic description.
Some of the English people planned to continue on into India where they could spend the winter before watching England playing some more cricket on their next tour. Sweet pleasure was also not something anyone who was following England had enjoyed much of in these parts for a while. However, thoughts of cricket had to be put firmly to the back of the mind. There were other distractions.
To many of the Pakistanis around me India was the Big Bad Wolf. Men in uniforms, who looked like they might burst open at any moment with national pride, strutted extravagantly like peacocks. Tickling feathered turrets wobbled above their heads as they strode and marched with a concentrated intensity, each trying to out-shout, out-stomp, out-strut the one before.
Everything here, on both sides of the border, was deliberately provocative. It was good old-fashioned nationalist feather ruffling between two giant countries who had perhaps the most traumatic border partition of any in relatively recent history. The unabashed jingoism played beautifully to the patriotic roars of the crowds. The insecurity of a youthful country rung true in the repeated and determined cries of,
LONG LIVE PAKISTAN!
A more muffled noise in the distance from the other side of the gate,
HAIL MOTHER INDIA!
The noisy crowds were in danger of drowning out the soldiers' shouts. Supposedly, only the tallest and most handsome Pakistani soldiers were selected to perform the closing of the border ritual. The pumped up soldiers marched in such a frenzied manner that I half-expected them to break into some sort of extravagant, theatrical style dance.
At other times, it reminded me of seeing the Haka performed in New Zealand. As a display of chauvinism, it bordered on electrocuted campness.
When the soldiers reached the actual frontier itself, a fat white border line and a gate with 'INDIA' painted in big gold letters, I was waiting for them to collide into it. They eyeballed their counterparts from the Indian side, who appeared to be doing a mirror image of what the Pakistani soldiers were doing. It was all carefully choreographed and had clearly been meticulously rehearsed.
Feet were slammed into the ground even harder than before. Snarled stares were exchanged. Noses were thrust defiantly outwards. Another flurry of violent stamps trying to wear the road out, glowering glares trying to intimidate Indian soldiers and the gates were slammed very firmly shut. It was hard to think of men being so angry without that anger spilling over into physical confrontation.
More legs, army and guns came flying with tremendous velocity past where I was watching from on the sidelines. It was the sort of display that made one want to keep a safe distance on the sidelines. But as a spectacle, it was uniquely enthralling and absorbing. If anyone wondered how two giant, powerful countries could possibly come so close to going to war, they should come and stand on the border to take the national pulses.
Now I could see why the advert to join the Pakistan army read:
'If you think you have burning spirit in you, join Pakistan Army to make it invincible!'
To the outsider and the tourist, it was all a bit of entertaining pantomime fun. The aggression is controlled and reasonably good natured. But further north along the border in the disputed and chillier climes of the Kashmir area, the unhealed wound of the country, 'fun' was not the word you might have used to describe the line where two massive nations collided. It was very much for real in more icy places where every day had the potential for war as two huge nations came eyeball to eyeball, seemingly locked into everlasting conflict.
You sensed that war had been one thing which had pulled a young country together on Pakistan's behalf. The tradition of fighting and war was proudly ingrained into many men, and maybe some of the women as well. All along the border it was like this, a case of how angry can you get without coming to blows?
When everything had been slammed, stomped and shouted for the last time, the ceremony came to a close with thunderous applause. All the energy of animosity had been expended. The severity and discipline of the occasion soon melted away. Everything softened and chaos was restored.
It seemed to be a symptom of Pakistan in general. While the military stayed in control, everything remained orderly. But when they finish or move on, the usual anarchy ensues. After an orchestrated burst of national pride, it was back to whistling and waving sticks at people who wandered into the wrong areas.
It reminded me of the idle and clueless regiments of uniformed men with moustaches who hovered outside some of the cricket grounds. The trend of people in supposedly important positions being over employed is continued up to the very highest levels.
An accountable, transparent and democratic political system with a stable representative government. Nothing in that sentence can be applied to the way Pakistan has been run recently.
In its peculiar facade of democracy, Pakistan's government has over sixty ministers, a very high amount. But it might as well have six hundred and sixty, because they are virtually irrelevant. Any decisions of note are taken by the President or the army, which are virtually the same thing anyway.
President Musharraff did after all achieve a 98 per cent approval rating when he held a referendum on his own rule a few years ago. Even Tony Blur would struggle to spin that one with a straight face and cheesy grin.
Pakistan might have had an elected parliament, but it was of little relevance and had minimal supremacy. It was a country with a faceless, unaccountable government and a voiceless, previously corrupt opposition.
In fact nearly all the politicians were expected to be corrupt and the institutions were toothless. Pakistan is a weak mess of a country, a politically complicated and fractious place actively brimming with severe unrest in many places. In spite, or maybe because of this, one thing remained reliably constant. The power of the army.
Pakistan is a country that relies on guns, God and cricket. In different ways they are all taken slightly too seriously here.
Pakistan, to many peoples' surprise, is also the sixth most populous country in the world. There are only five other countries in the world with more people in. When it gained independence in 1947 the population was just 30 million. Today it is above 165 million and rising fast.
Five hundred babies are being born every hour. One in three will live in poverty. That's around 55 million people, not far off the total number of people living in the whole of the UK.
Threatening war is one thing. Making time for cricket is another however. When the cricket is on in Pakistan, everything and everyone stops. Even soldiers on the front line. No one goes to war while cricket is being played.
The irony of such an elaborate border closing ceremony is that many Indians and Pakistanis from both sides probably want to cross the border for business of family reasons. And just imagine if one day these two giants fully opened up their borders to each other. Pakistan could become the vital missing link between a country which has copious supplies of energy, Iran, and another country which needs supplies of energy, India. Think of the consequences in economic trade and a reduction in the billions spent on defence if they engaged with each other instead of suspicious retreating and entrenched conflict.
Then again dispensing with the theatrical border ceremony would remove a lot of fun. Purchase 'Batting for Pakistan'