Pakistan India flag ceremony occurs despite blast
India’s home ministry had earlier said the daily flag-lowering ceremony at Wagah would be suspended as a mark of respect for the dead – the first time the parade would have been called off since the two countries went to war in 1971.
But later Pakistani officials changed their minds, deciding to go ahead with the ritual to send a message to the militants.
Just before dusk, at least 2,000 women, men and children gathered at the parade ground on the country’s main border crossing, some chanting “Death to terrorists” and “Long live Pakistan”.
On the Indian side, there were only a handful of spectators. The colourful show, where border guards in elaborate uniforms goose-step, shake hands brusquely across the border and scowl aggressively at each other, proceeded as usual amid heightened security.
“Today’s ceremony proved that terrorists cannot lower the spirit of the nation by their cowardly activities,” Lieutenant General Naveed Zaman said in remarks shown on television.
At least 57 people were killed and 110 wounded when the explosion ripped through a car park 500 metres from Pakistan’s border gate as hundreds of people left the performance.
At least two Pakistani Taleban splinter groups have claimed responsibility for the attack, saying it was revenge for the army’s military operation against insurgents in the tribal region of North Waziristan.
But given Pakistan’s frosty relations with India, with which it has fought three wars, some commentators suggested the attack might have been plotted by elements trying to sabotage relations between the arch-rivals or hurt India.
The flag-lowering ceremony is extremely popular on both sides, with crowds attending every day, siting on benches on either side of the gates adorned with large, facing portraits of their founding fathers, Mahatma Gandhi on the Indian side and Mohammed Ali Jinnah on the Pakistani side.
The attack rattled people’s nerves in a region already beset by violence and insurgencies, but despite reports that police had found more explosives in the area, many people came with their families to see the flag being lowered.
Anwar Shaikh, 45, a Lahore resident, was with his wife and two children. “I came here yesterday after the tragedy,” he said.
“Today, I came with my family to express solidarity with my country and the martyrs. We can give our lives to our country but would not surrender to terrorists.”
The last-minute decision to hold the ritual came too late for many hopeful spectators on the Indian side.
“We had confirmed to several tourists that the event would not take place for the next three days,” a senior Indian border security official said.
“So Indians did not turn up. Very few Indians, mainly locals, came.”
Earlier in the day, Indian resident Shivaji Chouhan was sent back at a checkpoint after travelling from the city of Pune to witness the show.
“We spent so much money and covered 2,000km to see the ceremony. We are disappointed,” he said.
Under the new government of Hindu nationalist prime minister Narendra Modi, India has stepped up its response to perceived aggression from neighbours Pakistan and China, with which it has long-standing border disputes.
Mr Modi, who is reviled by some Islamist groups, condemned Sunday’s attack as a “dastardly act”.
“My condolences to the families of the deceased. Prayers with the injured,” he said on Twitter.