India & Pakistan: plague on both your houses

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

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9 Responses to India & Pakistan: plague on both your houses

  1. Pradeep Kalra says:

    I concur with your thoughts. Once again the presentation of facts is admirable, and it is indeed a shameful state of affairs because these two neighbours have so much in common. A curse has indeed fallen and the mutual hatred is on the rise. The current situation is only going to make things unpleasant. Let’s pray for a miracle and may there be a reduction in the mutual hatred so that the coming generations may have a chance to coexist peacefully.

  2. When madness prevails sanity has no chance of being seen or heard.

  3. Sayed Chowdhury says:

    I do agree with most of your views, except one or two observations. I don’t believe that the founding fathers of both countries had envisaged good neighborly relations, as you said. If that was the case, how could Pakistan start the Kashmir war (1947-48), when the bloodbath that accompanied the partition was hardly over, and Nehru-Patel annexed Kashmir. I like your choice/coinage of the term ‘infantile militarism’. Had Pakistan not resorted to continue this policy through 1965 and 1971, the bilateral relations between India and Pakistan could have been much better than both countries now relying on the threat of a nuclear war, to avoid a full scale war. For decades, the leaders of both countries opted for disproportionately large armies and equipping them, denying millions of their citizens their basic needs – shelter, education, healthcare, potable water and sanitation. These leaders are criminals at best. Even British civil servants had warned Nehru-Gandhi-Patel and Jinnah-Liaquat that there will be a bloodbath if India is partitioned and millions will become refugees and perish. All these warnings fell on deaf ears.

    • Razi Azmi says:

      Sayed, without getting into a futile argument about the intentions of Mr Jinnah with regard to good neighbourly relations between India and Pakistan, I would like to quote from an eminent Indian, Kuldip Nayyar. He writes: “Jinnah never himself gave up his links with India. He wanted to visit India on a regular basis even after Partition. When Prime Minister Nehru wrote to him and asked what should be done with his two salubrious properties, one in Delhi’s prestigious Aurangzeb Road and the other in Bombay’s equally prestigious Malabar Hill, Jinnah responded by saying he proposed living in India for periods of time every year. There was no question of confiscating ‘enemy’ property.” (Kuldip Nayyar, “Jinnah expected India and Pakistan to be best of friends,” (The Telegraph, online edition, published 3.7.19). Numerous sources, both primary and secondary, corroborate this.

  4. M Anwar Hossain says:

    Yet another timely article on India-Pakistan issues from the illustrious author. This is a wonderful and thought provoking article. The responses are equally good. I fully agree with Syed Chowdhury, regarding his view about the ‘founding fathers’ of the two neighbouring countries. They are the leaders responsible for the divide of the subcontinent. There lies the root causes of later tragedies. We can wish for a change, but the wisdom from great leaders in both Pakistan and India are essential for that. Unfortunately we don’t find any in the foreseeable future. Just one agreement on Kashmir can trigger further steps. And that is a free unified Kashmir. As a freedom fighter in 1971 war of liberation, what else I can wish?

  5. Tony Letford says:

    While India is not blameless, incidents such as the 2008 Mumbai attack suggest that Islamic fanatics from lashkar e taiba and other terrorist organisations whose bases are in Pakistan are a major part of the problem and one which you didn’t address. Relations will never be harmonious until Pakistan can sort out the Islamic terrorists who do so much damage in Pakistan and the neighboring countries.

    • Razi Azmi says:

      But, Tony, what have the people of Kashmir done to deserve their demotion from the status of a State with a special status to that of a bifurcated Union Territory, with a status lower than that of a State? It is unprecedented, it has been done in a most surreptitious and draconian manner and is accompanied by a veritable reign of terror in the valley. And while Pakistan seems to be on the mend, in terms of its previous policy of promoting Jihadist organisations and proxy wars, India obviously is now driven by the RSS Hindutva ideology, which has little patience with secularism, diversity and pluralism in the country.

    • Razi Azmi says:

      Tony, as you are rather disparaging of Mr Jinnah and appear to be an ardent admirer of the British Raj, I draw your attention, as well as that of other readers, to an op-ed by By Alex Von Tunzelmann in the New York Times (18/8/2017), “Who is to blame for partition? Above all, Imperial Britain”.

  6. Nadeem Siddiqi says:

    Your lamentings and the pathos in your writing is felt deeply across both sides of the border. The stark present day reality is entirely man made and hence “changeable and open to course correction”. The “trust deficit” and the inherent dislike for the “other” is unique to India/Pakistan. There have been nations perpetually at war with each other in and across Europe but are now “hum pyala hum newaala” so to speak, because the political dispensation could not manipulate the popular sentiment of the citizenry.
    There were no devils in others to be exploited and made political capital of and hence… peace.
    The same cannot be said of India/Pakistan.
    The present Indian govt has come to power on the promise of correcting the wrongs done to the country since the early forays of conquerors and invaders.. all Muslim.. and hence it does not serve the purpose if the “enemy” is normalised.. the embers of hate will continue..
    So truly avoidable and sad. So am afraid the travel travails will continue for the foreseeable future.
    As always, it’s an absolute pleasure to read your articles.
    Eagerly awaiting your next.

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