Checkpoint Charlie Once Again

Beena Sarwar

Karachi
India-Pakistan relations have Nazo Reshi vacillating between hope and despair. Hailing from Srinagar, she is married to a Pakistani and lives in Islamabad. "Every time I apply for a visa for Jammu and Kashmir, it is a marathon," she wrote in an e-mail to Aman ki Asha, the peace initiative of the Jang Group of Pakistan where I work and the Times of India Group. 

"The intricacies of the visa application keep increasing. Nobody realises the plight of women like me who are divided from their families, often from villages all over India and Pakistan. Many years elapse before they can meet their families. I can go to the Indian high commission any time as I live in Islamabad. But for those in far off villages, even the cheapest fare is too much. The embassies of both countries try to give visas on humanitarian grounds if a relative dies. But what good is a dead body if we are unable to see the person alive?"

"... There are many like I am... hopeless and separated from our loved ones by solid imaginary lines drawn at the cost of our peace of mind." 

I called Nazo and we talked. Two days later, she rang to say that her mother was being operated upon for brain hematoma. Srinagar, barely 160km from Islamabad, might as well be across the world for Nazo. She has since set up an online petition (http://bit.ly/afnXBx) against visa restrictions. Each point, she says, has a story behind it. She will send the signatures to the foreign ministers' meeting in Islamabad on July 15. Despite feeling that the exercise is "futile" she clings to a ray of hope, "this small window of opportunity", as Sankarshan Thakur, Roving Editor, The Telegraph, Calcutta, put it. We talked on the phone while he was in Islamabad for the Saarc home ministers' meeting. He couldn't visit Karachi, just like I couldn't visit Allahabad when I came to Delhi for a conference in May. Absurd rules limit Indians and Pakistanis to one or two cities. At least we got visas.

Others are simply refused. India wouldn't give visas to Pakistani schoolchildren who wanted to participate in the Queen's Baton Relay ceremony on the Indian side of Wagah border for an hour or so. Surely, such a crossing shouldn't even need a visa? Surely, it could be managed through some kind of permit? 

The rules affect even children born to an Indian mother and a Pakistani father (and vice versa). Indian national Anjum Naqash lives with her Pakistani husband in Doha. Their children, aged nine and six, are Pakistanis (India did not earlier grant children nationality based on the mother's citizenship). 

"If I plan to go home, I have to leave my kids behind or wait and wait for clearance," she wrote to Aman ki Asha. "My father has to go through all the hassle in New Delhi, go from one office to another to get me a piece of paper. I wonder how that little paper validates that my kids are no threat to India. Their previous visas clearly mention that they are 'accompanied by Indian mother'."

She applied for a visa a month ago for her brother's wedding in July. "I am wondering if my kids will be able to see where I grew up, the people who mean a lot to me." She fears that as they grow up "they will get fed up of this process and never want to go there".

Talawat Bokhari, a former student activist living in Islamabad, now over 80 and suffering from Parkinsons' Disease, was so frustrated by the visa process some years ago that he wrote an appeal to then prime minister of India, IK Gujral, urging him to relax visa restrictions for senior citizens. A few days later the governments announced visas on arrival for those over 65 years of age. 

"We waited, but nothing happened. One can only laugh at these restrictions as they stop only those who desire to visit legally," he commented on my blog. "I have lost all hope now. Though I can visit Cairo with its pyramids, London, Moscow, Mashhad, I cannot visit Amritsar only 30 miles from Lahore."All eyes are now on our politicians and bureaucrats. Will they finally rise above themselves and allow us to live like neighbours in peace?

This story is from the print issue of Hardnews: JULY 2010

Comments

Poignant...

Coming as it does after one has been grappling with caste murders of young lovers in Punjab and Haryana and God knows where else, the article, also about love, is very moving.

Some years back an innovative school in India started a 'pen pals' programme with a school in Pakistan. Now that we are so much better connected, perhaps we should initiate many such pen pal exchanges.

Maybe we need to think out of the box for this one. Like a young Indian tennis player has teamed up with a young Pakistani, why can't we have more of this? Let us slap both the politicians and the fundamentalists on their faces and demand a joint team in hockey. Best way I can think of getting that bloody gold medal back to us!

On a serious note, two points:
One, we must have more interactions between Indians and Pakistanis aged 12 to 19; two, we must have more sports events involving the two countries, training together, if not playing together.

Corporates/MNCs call them what you wish, are constantly prattling how increased trade between the two countries will help them bond. Perhaps this is just their line as they reinvent the myths surrounding high growth rates.

Just once though, it would be nice to see many more of them putting their money where their mouths are and funding ventures that bring young people from India and Pakistan together.

I guess that's asking for too much.

Hartman de Souza
Goa