A routine daily flag-lowering ceremony at an Indian-Pakistani border crossing became a show of strength and patriotism Saturday on the Pakistani side thanks to simmering tensions between the two nuclear-armed neighbors.
Thousands of Pakistanis thronged the border town of Wagha to watch their soldiers lower the flag. The ceremony takes place daily and features a formal set of handshakes between Indian and Pakistani soldiers. Very few people attended from the Indian side.
Saturday’s ceremony took on extra meaning because of an ongoing dispute between India and Pakistan over the contested territory of Kashmir. Both countries claim the Himalayan territory in its entirety and are separated by the heavily guarded Line of Control.
Since 2003, a cease-fire has largely held despite regular small-scale skirmishes. Each side routinely blames the other for starting any violence and insists they are only retaliating.
India blamed Pakistani-supported Kashmir-based militants for a deadly Sept. 18 assault on a base in Indian-controlled Kashmir that killed 17 Indian soldiers.
On Sept. 29, the Indian military claimed to have carried out a ”surgical strike” across the Kashmir border that destroyed what it called a ”terrorist launching pad” used by Kashmir-based militants. Two Pakistani soldiers were killed in that barrage.
The latest spike in tensions has spilled over into a cultural and political stand-off. The Indian Motion Picture Artists Association announced it would ban Pakistani actors from Bollywood movies and several large Pakistani cinema chains announced they would stop showing Indian movies.
Saturday’s ceremony began with the march of two female border guards. Then a Pakistani Sikh soldier shook hands with his Indian counterpart; the soldier also shook his fist aggressively at the Indian soldier as the Pakistani crowd clapped in approval.
Among those who travelled to witness the ceremony Saturday was 70-year-old Mohammad Ahsan, who said he came from southern port city of Karachi.
”I am so happy that I saw today’s parade and flag lowering ceremony. The way our soldiers sprint and march is a rare experience of my life,” he said, as his daughters and others chanted, ”long live Pakistan.”
Anam Fatima, 17, said she came to Wagha along with her classmates and teachers to boost the morale of Pakistani soldiers.
”I did not know that our soldiers are so handsome, tall and brave and I saw them today closely and God willing no one can defeat our brave nation,” she said.