‘What good is a dead body if you can’t see the person alive?’

Published in Hardnews, India and The News on Sunday, Pakistan

PERSONAL POLITICAL

What good is a dead body if you can’t see the person alive?

Beena Sarwar

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 email 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 160 km from Islamabad, might as well be across the world for Nazo.

She has since set up an online petition 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 Queens 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, ages 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, I.K. 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?

Postscript: Also see petition launched by the Association for Communal Harmony in AsiaMake it Easier for People from India and Pakistan to Travel and Meet Each Other. Click here to access and sign it.

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9 Responses

  1. [...] This cup of tea was served by: Journeys to democracy [...]

  2. Thank you dear Beena for publicising my frustration on failure of my efforts in moving about in the Indo-Pak Subcontinent, which I still consider my mother-land, Hindostan, though politically divided in a number of states, inter alia, Pakistan and Bharat, in the hope of verily ushering peace (Aman ki Asha) in the region. It was only I.K. Gujral, a sharnarthi from Jhelum, who could understand the longing of partition’s displaced persons and the divided families to see their birthplace and to meet their relatives and friends on the other side of the divide. The establishment of the different states in the subcontinent did in no way mean to raise perfidious barriers against movement of the people. No one could visualize creation of such closed-door states as a result of partition. In fact the people were given to believe that at least the two states, India and Pakistan, would be like Canada and America, with free inter-state movement of the citizens of the two countries. They even talked of a corridor for communication between erstwhile East and West Pakistan, now Pakistan and Bangladesh.

    My generation, which is soon going to be extinct, is witness to all this history, most of them going to die, taking their frustration with them of seeing the other side of the divide, which they considered once as their ‘Janam-bhoomi’ motherland.

  3. Unfortunately, Pakistan’s taliban and terrorism problem has nearly ensured that no visa relaxation will happen in the near future, but I am still hopeful that the day is not to far when we are able to cross over to India and Indians to Pakistan – more freely.

    My maternal grandfather, who was born and spent his childhood in Amritsar, is one of the people who has extreme fondness for India. His nostalgia motivated him to visit Amritsar and other parts of India in his adulthood, and that too, several times. While he doesn’t have any remaining family in India, he was lucky enough to still have acquaintances (the children of his father’s close friends) who, although Hindu, treat him with great affection and helped him with the visa process.

    I hope and pray that something will come of this campaign :)

    • Thank you for your comment. Hopefully both the problems you mention – Taliban and terrorism – are temporary and will subside if the democratic political process is allowed to continue without army interference. Things do look a bit bleak but we have to keep up the pressure. If you consider it appropriate, please do send your comment to news.post@thenews.com.pk and amankiasha@janggroup.com.pk, including your real name, address (pls state if it is not to be published) and location. We’ll publish it in the newspaper and websites.
      regards

  4. The leaders should behave in a responsible manner…the way the Pak Foreign Minister behaved today was really shocking. I mean how can u behave like this and then even expect that peace talks should continue.

  5. Marriages cutting across national boundaries always create issues like the above. India and Pakistan are neighbors but are very different in their ideologies and in their visions of where they wish to end up and on what means they are willing to adopt to get there. Security protections are a necessity — not a luxury.

    • With all due respect, I don’t see how denying visas or making it difficult for people like Talawat Bokhari or Nazo Reshi or small children, is a ‘security protection’.

  6. @BJ Kumar

    You say,” Security protections are a necessity — not a luxury.”

    I ask a simple question: Did Ajmal Qasab visit Bombay on a visa from High Commission of India in Pakistan?

    And, on the other hand, all those involved in 9/11 disaster in USA had valid visas.

    Security checks are there only to proliferate and protect the so called security agencies.

  7. T.S.Bokhari, I don’t mean to be insensitive and I don’t mean to make this discourse about the likes of the Kasab, but there is ample proof out there of Pakistani establishment’s involvement in 26/11 — which creates a case for more security precautions, not less!

    People who chose life partners across borders will always run into situations like those described here. It is a sad but unavoidable part of life. That is just how it is!

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