IAF pilot to be released at Wagah-Attari border: All you need to know about the historical line between the two villages

On Thursday afternoon, Pakistan prime minister Imran Khan announced that captured Indian Air Force pilot Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman will be released on Friday. In the two days during which the pilot was in Pakistani custody, an atmosphere of charged exchange of information and misinformation had prevailed between India and Pakistan on social media. This turned sombre as many began hoping instead that the Wing Commander returns home safely. As this looks increasingly likely to happen, the focus has shifted to the reported venue where the handover of the prisoner of war will take place -- the historical Wagah-Attari border.

Sources have told News18 that Abhinandan has been kept in Rawalpindi, where the Pakistan Army Headquarters are based. He will purportedly be flown to Lahore on a special flight, from where he will be handed over to the Indian side, through the Wagah-Attari border. A delegation of the Indian Air Force will be there, even though it is not clear whether he will be handed over directly to India or first to the International Red Cross.

 IAF pilot to be released at Wagah-Attari border: All you need to know about the historical line between the two villages

File image of BSF soldiers at the Wagah border. Reuters

Two villages

Wagah (also spelt Wahga) is a significant village in the story of India and Pakistan. Located on the border of the two nations, in territory that belongs to Pakistan's Punjab province, it is a goods transit terminal and key railway station between India and Pakistan.

Attari, three kilometres from the Wagah border, in Punjab's Amritsar district, is the last Indian station on the rail route connecting Lahore to New Delhi and one of the main access points to Pakistan from India. Every Wednesday and Sunday, until operations were suspended, the Samjhauta Express would travel the three kilometres between Attari and Wagah on its way to and from Delhi and Lahore. The only transport service to do so. The Indian Railway Board, however, has also suspended all operations of the Attari Special Express that ran between Delhi and Attari as part of the Samjhauta Express.

The road between Wagah and Attari is also the only functional road link between Pakistan and India.

The "Wagah-Attari border" is an informal term that has taken on a significance since the Partition of the subcontinent in 1947, in the aftermath of which crores walked into Pakistan and India through these villages. The political implications of the line on a map were ones which both countries are dealing with to this day. Nonetheless, the border has traditionally signified accord between the two countries and has been relatively devoid of the grisly tension surrounding the neighbours.

A daily ceremony

The most notable example of this is the daily flag-lowering ceremony held there at sunset. The ceremony sees the participation of both the Indian and Pakistani paramilitary troopers, in addition to an audience of hundreds who turn up to witness the spectacular show of bravado and bonhomie. The tradition of the ceremony has endured since 1959, through times of peace and war. Similar border traditions are also followed by the Pakistan Rangers and the Border Security Forces at the Ganda Singh Wala-Hussainiwala and the Sulaimanki-Fazilka borders, yet it is the Wagah-Attari border one that draws the most people.

In the ceremony, soldiers on both sides attempt to put on a show fuelled by patriotism where an exercise in mock intimidation is carried out by staring, kicking in the air and loud stomps on the ground. A flag retreat happens at the same time.

A BBC report notes the necessary role the crowd plays at the event.

"For 45 minutes every sunset they high kick, stamp, speed march and shout their way through a choreographed routine that ends in the lowering of both flags and the slamming of the border gates. The "retreat ceremony", the traditional way to end hostilities for the day, is a lot less aggressive than it used to be - and any tension is cheered away by the baying crowd of thousands who pack the stadiums on either side every night."

Not always peaceful

A Google Maps screenshot of the Wagah checkpoint on the India-Pakistan border.

A Google Maps screenshot of the Wagah checkpoint on the India-Pakistan border.

Even though no cases of armed conflict between India and Pakistan have been seen on the Wagah-Attari border, instances of violence have taken place in the region. On 30 November, 2014, more than 50 people were killed and at least 100 injured in a suicide bombing near the checkpoint at the Wagah border crossing. The Pakistani Taliban had claimed responsibility for the attack, although other militant groups also said they were responsible.

Three members of the Pakistani border force had been among those who died. The blast took place at an eatery that was crowded with the day's visitors who had come to attend the flag-lowering ceremony.

In the backdrop of the 2016 showdown between the two countries, with claims and counter-claims of border violence being made by both, the retreat ceremony continued but was marred by the ban on Indian spectators for 10 days. In that time, the BSF did not exchange sweets nor shared greetings with the Pakistani Rangers, defying a long tradition of displaying friendship on the respective Independence Days, Eid and Diwali. When the doors were reopened to visitors, reported Hindustan Times, few seats had remained empty.

The historic border crowds headlines once again at another crucial point in Pakistan and India's history.

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Updated Date: Mar 01, 2019 11:30:37 IST