Soldiers take joint action to tone down high-stepping

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The Independent Online

For decades, the high-stepping, border closing ceremony at Wagah-Attari has been an opportunity for both Indian and Pakistani soldiers to put on their most aggressive, intimidating display of martial rigour.

But such behaviour comes at a price. Over the years, senior officers have complained that the goose-stepping action and fierce stamping included in the so-called Beating the Retreat ceremony has led to serious ankle and knee injuries among their men. As a result, the two countries – nuclear-armed neighbours that have gone to war four times since they secured their independence from Britain – have decided to take it easy with each other.

Reports suggest the flag-lowering event that takes place every evening at the border, located approximately halfway between the Pakistani city of Lahore and the Indian city of Amritsar, will now feature a performance with slightly less testosterone.

"We have proposed a lowering of the aggression in the gestures during the daily parade, and subsequently took a unilateral decision to implement that," Himmat Singh, a senior officer with the Indian Border Security Force (BSF), told the Hindustan Times. "The Pakistan Rangers have also agreed to the proposal, and toned down their drill."

The daily ceremony attracts hordes of tourists from both countries, who take seats overlooking the border. As the soldiers march towards each other, feet up high and eyes glaring, the patriotic crowds shout and cheer for their side.

Such is the co-ordination required by the soldiers – each country allows only its tallest and fiercest-looking troops to participate – that they often hold joint practice sessions. DVDs of the event are big sellers in shops, both in the Indian border village of Wagah, and at Pakistan's Attari.

The agreement to lower the temperature, coming a week after bad-tempered, ineffectual diplomatic talks in Islamabad, is not the first time that officers have tried to address the problem of "mild to severe" joint injuries accrued at the border ceremony.

Last year it was reported that such was the concern about the injuries to the Pakistan Rangers and Indian BSF troops that a special spring mat was to be laid down for the parade. It is not clear whether this was ever done.

The crossing between the two countries acts as something of a barometer in the relationship between Delhi and Islamabad at any given time. Several years ago, prior to the 2008 Mumbai attacks and when relations were warmer, there was talk of boosting cross-border trade and even of opening direct flights between the two capitals. Yet, while a train and bus service still crosses the border, the number of people who make the trip is not high. People on both sides complain about the difficulty of getting a visa. Cement and tomatoes are the only cargo that gets regular clearance to cross.

Last week's meeting in Islamabad was a disappointment for those hoping the two countries could agree to restart the so-called "composite dialogue" that existed before the 2008 attacks. Despite meeting for several hours, foreign ministers Shah Mehmood Quereshi and SM Krishna failed to made meaningful progress.

Both sides blamed the other, though neither resorted to goose-stepping theatrics.