Nowhere in the world are the imperatives of cross-border travel and trade more pressing than between India and Pakistan. And nowhere in the world is this more restricted than here. This is not what the founding fathers had envisaged, not by far, not on this side, not on that side, neither those who craved partition nor those who condemned partition.
(Published in Daily Times, 6 October 2019)
Around the world, the ability to travel without hassle to the country next door is taken for granted. It is not merely desirable but essential, for most international borders rather arbitrarily divide nations, linguistic and ethnic groups, tribes, clans and families.
And where they don’t, familiarity through direct contact between peoples promotes understanding and dissipates doubts between neighbours. Besides, there is great economic benefit from regional trade and tourism.
And nowhere in the world are the imperatives of cross-border travel and trade more pressing than between India and Pakistan. And nowhere in the world is this more restricted than here. But I will return to that in a moment.
American and Canadian citizens can cross the border with the greatest ease. Australians and New Zealanders may not only travel but also live and work in the other country unhindered. Indians and Nepalese citizens also enjoy visa-free travel and work rights in the other country.
Elsewhere in the world, countries have regional arrangements which allow their citizens to travel easily across borders. I have had the good fortune to travel extensively and see and experience this first hand even in conflict-ridden areas and regions with a history of bloodshed and border disputes.
This is true in former Yugoslavia, between Serbia, Croatia and Bosnia, who not so long ago were massacring one another. This is true in countries of Southern Africa, East Africa and West Africa, rife with tribal and ethnic animosities. This is true in the Central American states and in South America as well, despite rivalries and disputes. This is true in Southeast Asia, among member-states of the ASEAN group.
The one glaring exception to the rule are India and Pakistan. Between them, unfortunately, has gradually descended a Steel Curtain. Yes, a steel curtain, not merely metaphorically but quite literally, what with barbed wire steel fences, search lights, electronic surveillance and constant armed patrols.
The one crossing point at Wagah-Attari is a daily exhibition of jingoism and hyper-militarism at sunset, worthy of Einsteinian contempt. If Jinnah and Gandhi or Liaquat and Nehru were to see this, they would cry in anguish.
Here, on the India-Pakistan border, there is no sunrise, only sunset, if I may say so. This border, which could glow with light and hope, is unfortunately enveloped in darkness and doom.
Western tourists come to enjoy the spectacle at sunset as infantile militarism at best and a cockfight at worst. Locals throng to watch it somewhat like a short cricket match and a rare chance to see the other side up close. If proof is needed that the relationship between these two siblings is veering on madness, this is it. And this is quite apart from the constant refrain to nuclear weapons from both sides.
At Wagah-Attari, one sees a trickle of unfortunate elderly civilians from divided families from both sides crossing on foot, going through multiple immigration, customs and security checks. Onerous and troubling as these checks are, these people are nevertheless the few lucky ones who have succeeded in getting a visa from the other country.
One of my closest relatives, a Pakistani citizen, has a brother and two sisters in India, who are Indian citizens. He has travelled to India on family visit visas three times in the last thirty years or so, his last visit being in 2005. Now close to 90 years of age, about three years ago he again applied for an Indian visa to visit his old, ailing siblings one last time.
Tons of documents, including invitation letters and proofs of this and that, were asked for and duly submitted, but his visa application was refused by the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, not once, but twice. No reason was given. It didn’t help that he had stated it was his last wish to see his siblings before he was recalled by his Maker.
But it was not always like this. This is not what the founding fathers had envisaged, not by far, not on this side, not on that side, neither those who craved partition nor those who condemned partition.
Suffice it to mention that Pakistan’s founding father had not disposed of his huge house in India when he left for Pakistan to become its first Governor-General. In fact, he had expressed his wish and hope many times that people should be able to travel unhindered between the two countries, for they were tied to each other by a thousand ties.
Not even the bloodbath which accompanied partition, nor a full-scale war over Kashmir (1947-48) destroyed this dream of peaceful coexistence and good neighbourly relations between the two countries. Their citizens could travel to the other country without a passport for many years after partition and independence. Even after the introduction of the passport and visa requirement in 1953, visa was a mere formality, easily obtained from the respective high commission or consulate. People came and went without hindrance.
It was the 1965 war, the result of President Ayub Khan’s ill-conceived Operation Gibraltar, which clamped the door shut between India and Pakistan, leaving divided families unable to visit their relatives on the other side of the border. This was followed by the tragic 1971 war.
Nevertheless, despite this background of two recent wars, family visits were renewed in the mid-1970s. However restrictive, visas were rather easily available to citizens of both countries for family visits, which were limited to three cities, with the added requirement of reporting to police. But the borders remained open and thousands of people actually travelled to the other side on family visits every week.
And there were academic and sporting exchanges, cultural visits and a plethora of other ways whereby Pakistanis and Indians were able to travel to the other side and interact.
Sadly, relations have sharply deteriorated over the last two decades and have totally collapsed in the last two years. It is as if a curse has fallen, mutual hatred has gripped the two nations and their leaders are bewitched. Plague on both your houses, as Shakespeare would say.
by Razi Azmi