Frontline: Wagah - Soldiers fly their kites of hope at cruel border

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The Independent Online
THE WORLD'S cruellest borders are those that are purely political; where not even a creek or a contour or a fault in the rocks exists to clothe the nakedness of what the politicians have decreed; where neighbours and families and communities are sliced apart like a knife slicing through living flesh.

Wagah, the only land crossing between India and Pakistan, is one. Last Saturday the Indian Prime Minister, Atal Behari Vajpayee, made history when he crossed from the Indian to the Pakistani side to inaugurate the Delhi to Lahore bus service. For the politician, this required imagination, optimism and goodwill. For the bus driver it required about 10 seconds in first gear. The politicians now have much to discuss, but for the driver there is nothing to negotiate. The gap between the two countries is flat, and nine feet wide. There are no rolls of razor wire, no sentries in pillboxes with machine-guns trained. Once the two pairs of wrought iron gates have swung open, you are through.

The people on each side are farmers of the same fertile soil. As he stepped down from the bus, Mr Vajpayee offered the Pakistani Prime Minister, Nawaz Sharif, a basket of fruit. Prakash Singh Badal, chief minister of (India's) Punjab, gave him some locally grown wheat. Mr Vajpayee also gave Mr Sharif a handful of Indian soil. It came from the nearby village of Jati Umra, where the Sharif family's ancestral home once stood.

For the only land crossing between fratricidal states that have fought three wars, there is something bizarrely light-hearted about Wagah. The vicious action between India and Pakistan takes place elsewhere, along the Line of Control, the long de facto border between the Indian-controlled and Pakistan-controlled parts of Kashmir, or inside Indian Kashmir, where a low-level civil war has been going on for 10 years. On the eve of Mr Vajpayee's visit, for example, 20 Hindus were murdered there, with the obvious intention of blasting the bus out of the headlines. (They failed.)

Wagah, by contrast, is as colourful and unreal as the set of a comic opera. From Lahore you come rattling down the Grand Trunk Road (GTR), which once ran all the way from Afghanistan to Calcutta, and might, some fancy, one day do so again.

"Welcome to Pakistan, Land of Culture and Adventure" reads the banner at Wagah. "Unity, Faith, Discipline". But the mood is not that of a military camp but more of a holiday resort out of season. There's a burger stand, and beach umbrellas on the lawn outside the state guesthouse. Flags flap on the flagstaffs.

Guns are ubiquitous in Pakistan. But the Pakistani Rangers and their opposite numbers on the Indian side, though armed to the teeth, epitomise the comic opera mood, sparkling like newly polished apples, ablaze with starched turbans of scarlet and vermilion. None is under six feet, some may be closer to seven. Every morning and evening, at the ceremonies of reveille and retreat, they stage the most eye-poppingly exaggerated display of square bashing you will ever see, burnished over decades to a pitch of perfection, and watched agog day after day by an appreciative audience. But nothing (except what goes on at Buckingham Palace) could be further from the realities of modern warfare. So hard do they stamp, it is said, they get through a set of leather heels every week.

So flimsy and unreal, the border at Wagah might be dismantled and carted off like a redundant stage set, leaving no residue ... that is the seductive idea which Mr Vajpayee's crossing by bus has helped to revive.

Six years ago, an Indian diplomat crossing here looked up and saw two kites fighting in the winter sky, one emblazoned with the Pakistani flag, one with the Indian.

The Pakistani commanding officer at the post told him the story behind them. The two soldiers controlling the kites had played together near here as children, pre-Partition. Then their families were separated by the border; they joined their nations' respective armies, and took part on opposite sides in a battle during the war of 1971.

After that they once again made contact; and each winter, both posted at Wagah, floated and fought their kites.

If India and Pakistan must fight again, let it be not with nuclear tipped missiles but with kites: that was the mood at Wagah on this extraordinary weekend.