Between borders and divides

The recently departed late Khushwant Singh ends his epic “Train to Pakistan,” based on the partition travails, on a positive note, where the main protagonist fights against all odds to ensure a safe and secure passage for his love interest and hundreds of her fellow passengers but symbolically loses his life in the wake. Fast forward to the present time, the proverbial train (read travel) back and forth across the border still seeks sacrifices, a travel arrangement that must kick start at least months in advance, extensive documentation, moving across bureaucratic hassles, seeking permissions and still not be sure if one can finally make it or not.

Khushwant’s novel is part of the earlier generation of partition literature, which is replete with stories of divided families, loss of identity and longing, later to be replaced by an increasingly nationalized narrative yet carrying in it strong under currents of the times lost. Likewise, in real time, the generation that experienced the partition, lived through its horrors, faced the fracturing of families is gradually being replaced by a generation of purely Pakistanis or Indians (rather South Asians in general) who have not personally been baptized by this deadly communal fire but carry the legacy of their predecessors and are being ably coopted into the “national identity building” processes. The process has both a positive and negative consequence. Where it is supposedly leaving back the partition legacy behind, it is also giving birth to a mindset, which is strongly shaped by the deeply entrenched memories and experiences of the past. We all conveniently remain wedded to our pasts. A trip to Wahga (border crossing between India and Pakistan, which holds daily flag lowering ceremony) is a witness to these sentiments. Emotional sloganeering, patriotic songs blaring on the music systems, people waving flags, wearing country coded clothes and an emotionally charged environment puts a witness in a very surreal situation. Having always wished to witness the ceremony which is also a huge tourism opportunity, my wish came true in the oddest of circumstances.

The process started as early as November last year, when an invitation was forwarded for a Delhi based event scheduled for March 2014. Being veterans in holding cross border events, after umpteenth exchange of emails entailing required info, our hosts were successful in getting us no objection certificates one each from the Indian home ministry as well as the external affairs. At the visitors’ end it was a very careful and meticulous filling of an online visa form, which Must not go wrong, as it may mean visa refusal or problems at immigration. Interestingly, even opening, filling and saving the form is a process in itself, because many a times, owing to technical issues (or conspiracy ridden mindsets: anonymous forces at work) not every computer is “visa form friendly.” (a successful applicant duly earns the right to celebrate). As if this stress inducing exercise was not enough, courtesy Dr. Shakeel Afridi and his infamous polio campaign debacle, Pakistanis have now to acquire an additional documentation, which certifies that they are not polio carriers. Armed with permissions, certifications and above all invitation letter and hosts’ passport and personal details, I prepared myself for a trip to the Indian High commission, where interestingly intelligence personnel actually guide applicants to the relevant counters. However, I was timely informed that now all visa applications are routed through a courier service, so I applied accordingly. Nearly ten days later, a telephonic call seeking visa interview brought me to the high commission, where after an audience with the consular staff, I had a very friendly audience with an anonymous intel officer who fulfilled his duty very decently and off I went to pursue the governmental permission which would allow me cross border travel, and at that point of time was moving across various governmental offices enroute its final signature. Many thrilling episodes later, I headed to the airport to board a red eye flight to Dubai which would then after few hours’ transit take me to Delhi. Point to note is that there is no direct flight between the two capital cities, and ordinarily we have to take a flight from Lahore or Karachi to Delhi which has a flight time spanning between 45 to 90 minutes respectively.

Feeling very confident that for once everything was in order, and nothing could go wrong, first the airline counter and then immigration informed me that the visa status of Attari/ Delhi meant I could only travel through the Wahga check point via on-foot or the friendship bus service!!! Any amount of persuasion at 2 in the morning could not deter the misinformed officials so I returned home after cancelling my ticket. The next morning a series of phone calls later to all concerned soon found me speeding to Lahore with a driver who could set new records in formula one racing to reach the border before it closes around 1600 hrs for the famous flag hoisting ceremony. To add to the adventure, a quick phone call to a Pakistani military officer stationed at Wahga revealed that Pakistani side of the border closes a 1530 hrs and 1600 is the corresponding Delhi time. With 15 minutes left to the timeline, and still at a distance, it was nothing short of Bollywood movie that eventually had me dashing across the border, but at the end, thanks to the officials at Pakistani end and then their Indian counterparts, I finally made it. Later sharing the story with my hosts and the conference participants, we all not only enjoyed but many walked up to me to share how their parents or grandparents’ generation had crossed the partition in challenging circumstances and how the sense of longing and loss prevailed. Interestingly, each time the official networks become more challenging it is the human factor that kicks in and helps bridge the divides.

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Image: Arif Ali-AFP, Getty 

Posted in , Cooperation, Culture, History, India, India-Pakistan Relations, Pakistan, Track II

Salma Malik

Salma Malik

Ms Salma Malik is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Defence and Strategic Studies, Quaid-I-Azam University, Islamabad Pakistan. She specializes in the areas of War, Arms Control & Disarmament, Military Sociology, South Asian Affairs and her research areas include: Conflict Management & Transformation, Human Security, CBMs & Micro-Disarmament.

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6 thoughts on “Between borders and divides

  1. Wow! What an adventure, Salma! And that to happening to you who has travelled to India for numerous conferences and workshops. It is such a shame that the visa offices on both sides of the border make every effort to ensure that no one applies for a visa next time! Talk about CBMs. We all know where they need to start. Thanks for sharing your account.

  2. Salma:
    Great post.
    Which prompts this distant memory: Back in the day (early ’90s) there was another memorable ritual when taking flights between Pakistan and India. What should have taken two hours took most of a day — without even having to go thru the Gulf. There was, back then, if my imperfect memory serves, a couple of PIA flights per week, and a couple of Indian airline flights, too. All passengers were carefully screened, multiple times. But what I remember most was that all the batteries for our gadgets, like our cameras, were confiscated. There was a big bin of AA batteries that we all contributed to. Wonder what happened to those batteries…
    MK

  3. Thanks Michael,
    i really enjoyed your post about the “battery collectibles”. there might come a time when there is a museum dedicated to such things confiscated from regular travelers and tourists. Contrary to my expectations, the Wahgah experience was better than air travel, but perhaps i was there (to and fro) at a time when there were fewer people or perhaps the political situation has been relaxed as the first casualty of bilateral relations getting tense is the visa regime.

    Mercifully, where there still remain many issues to work out, things have become better. one couldn’t imagine a few years back the option of dual entry visa or senior citizens just requiring a very basic document and no visa at all to travel across plus little restriction on cities to travel.

  4. Rabia, each time i have traveled to India, it has been a new experience. Interestingly, there is always a new set of problems to iron out. this time i thought, i had walked the entire walk, only to find out that there was more to come :)

    However, we are the lucky ones, who do after all these issues not only manage to travel across, but neither have to go through the hassles of police reporting nor extensive documentation and procedures ordinary citizens have to face. i have seen people coming from far away places queued up outside respective consular sections for at times entire day, sports’ teams waiting till past mid night to board cross border flight mid day, only to be rejected or turned down owing to lack of some very simple or unnecessary paper work. but hope and optimism prevails.

  5. This is senseless bureaucracy and condemnable. The practice of having visa for designated cities is faulty since visa should be valid for a country and not specific locations in a country. Not only are bureaucrats pigheaded but at times diplomats too, all these archaic rules need to change and fast.

  6. Daruwala ji,

    i totally agree with you, but at the same time i guess we have unfortunately become so conditioned by these “unique” traits of the bilateral conflict that cynically speaking, we tend to enjoy these idiosyncrasies. you will agree that till a year or two back a dual or open entry visa was unthinkable, which hopefully in place now will not be revoked. plus senior citizens’ no longer have to undergo the sinfully tedious and wasteful visa formalities but now just need some basic and simple documentation. we may all get lucky and have a proper visa regime instead of these experiments.

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