The visa war

The visa war

Two 50-year-old siblings still play tit-for-tat.

For all of lnder Kumar Gujral´s overtures to Pakistan, it is still ludicrously difficult for Pakistanis to visit India, as Lahori journalist c found out. He concedes that it might be equally frustrating for Indians headed the other way.

On or about 12 August 1947, my grandparents and two young aunts went missing in the violence that struck Jalandhar in Punjab, India. My father, Divisional Engineer for the North Western Railway, and my doctor uncle were then both in Delhi.

A month later, by when the rest of the family had moved to Pakistan, my uncle (still working in Delhi) went with a foreign mission to Jalandhar where disease had broken out because of the thousands of rotting corpses. There he met the refugee commissioner to ask of the fate of the Muslims who remained in the city. There were none, he was told. They were either all dead or had immigrated to Pakistan.

My uncle did not have the heart to visit that house at Railway Road where he had spent most of his childhood for he yet believed that he would be reunited with his parents and sisters when he eventually made his way to Pakistan. But that was not to be. It did not take long for the surviving family to recognise that their most dearly loved ones had been lost in the making of the new nation.

To me, born almost five years after Partition, Jalandhar was just another name in the atlas. Since my entire family had moved to Pakistan, and as no one ever visited India, there was no news of the state of the two houses in Jalandhar. Then, in 1983, a distant relative visited the city and came back with a photo of my grandfather´s house. It still stood. And the dream to visit my roots was born. But even before I could begin working towards it, relations with India soured. Shortly afterwards came the Sikh separatist movement and the Indian restriction on Pakistanis travelling in their part of Punjab.

Early last year, Inder Kumar Gujral, upon becoming prime minister, removed several restrictions for visiting Pakistanis and I saw, once again, my chance of visiting Jalandhar. Because a visa between our two countries allows a traveller to visit specifically named cities or villages where the visitor must report to the police on arrival and before departure, it seemed extreme goodwill on the part of the Indian Prime Minister to allow Pakistani journalists gratis visas for twelve cities exempt from police reporting. It seemed 1 would finally be able to visit Delhi, Solan, Jalandhar and the nearby village of Oghi – all places that featured in our family´s life in united India. Meeting Mr Bihari

Enquiries revealed that a simple visa application would be simply turned down, since the restriction on travelling in Punjab was still in place. An interview to explain the need to travel to Jalandhar and Oghi was suggested. My application that explicitly stated my reason for visiting Jalandhar, duly endorsed by my editor of The News on Sunday, secured me an interview for 9:00 am, 21 August 1997.

The pace of things was set by the interviewer (called ´Bihari´) duly forgetting to notify the gate about letting me in. However, a telephone got me into the busy visa section where I was told by an operative in a grey uniform to fill in some very tedious forms in quintuplicate. It is noteworthy that these visa forms assume all intending travellers to have relatives in India with whom they are expected to stay since the forms explicitly state that one can travel only to cities where one has relatives.

I left this column blank and sent in the forms and my passport. Fifteen minutes later the uniformed man returned the documents saying I could not be given a visa because I had listed Jalandhar as one of the destinations. I explained. He asked me to list my relatives. I told him our entire family had immigrated to Pakistan. He said in that case I could not go to India for I would have no place to stay. I suggested hotels and the man said I should name the hotels I would be staying in. But since I had never been to India, and nor had any relatives who could go hotel hunting for me, I did not know the names of any hotels. In any event, the slight irregularity of my case was the reason I had sought the interview, so could he please be so good as to tell Mr Bihari I was waiting to be seen.

The man did the needful on the in-house telephone and 1 was told to wait. Time slipped by and in the course of the next hour and a half this man attempted more than once to convince me that I was wasting my time. I eventually left when a colleague of his repeated the refrain. In all these nearly two hours, Mr Bihari did not once make his appearance.

I came away convinced that whatever Mr Inder Kumar Gujral (or any other politician for that matter) may say, their injunctions will be tossed out of the window by the almighty bureaucrat without even a look. It is clear that Indian bureaucracy will scuttle anything that challenges their traditional view of Pakistan, the enemy. Political initiatives to thaw relations will therefore endlessly be fouled, and one does not need to be an expert political analyst to see the truth in that.

In India this is not a Pakistani tirade against India although it may have begun to sound like one to some. I am very much aware that our own bureaucrats are no better. Shortly after my experience at the Indian High Commission, I read an article in the Sunday Magazine of Dawn. Written by a woman who had travelled to India last summer and visited the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi out of curiosity, it brings shame to folks that call themselves Pakistanis. Compared to the treatment meted out there to intending travellers to Pakistan (mostly Muslims, mind you), the dealings of the Indian High Commission in Islamabad suddenly seemed quite civil and almost charitable.

From Saman Khan´s writing, it seems that the sole purpose of the Pakistani visa officer in Delhi is to obfuscate, obstruct or, in an almighty display of compassion, delay the intending visitor for as long as possible. Since most are from the poorer segments of Indian society with little (and sometimes no) education, the visa-seekers are at a complete loss to find a way around the frustrating rigmarole of the bureaucracy. Many had been trying to visit Pakistan for months, if not years, and had stood day after day under the blazing sun or in the bitter cold to get inside. Once inside, there was always this bit of information or that which had not been supplied, forcing the applicant to withdraw crestfallen. Since visas are issued only at the High Commission in Delhi, this also entailed tedious back and forth journeys of several hundred kilometres across the length and breadth of India.

As for the procedures, they are no different from the ones that the Indian High Commission requires of Pakistanis. The forms (in quintuplicate, surely) are as tedious as the Indian ones; the information to be furnished is the same. This includes names and addresses of relatives to be visited which, in effect, precludes a tourist visit. It appears that the High Commission in Delhi has set for itself a quota of visas it will issue each day, and there is no method in rejecting or accepting a visa application. Rude behaviour of the staff was another thing that Saman Khan writes about. I must confess that the uniformed functionaries at the Indian High Commission, even the toughie with the red tilak, were quite civil, always addressing me as "sahib".

Pakistan and India simply represent a case of two 50-year-old brats playing a nasty game of tit-for-tat: You expel our diplomat, we´ll expel yours. You make it difficult for intending travellers, we´ll make it more so. The game is endless. For all of us in Pakistan longing to visit an ancestral home on the other side of the border, there is an equal, perhaps greater, number in India yearning to re-live a childhood in what is now Pakistan. Many of us will die dreaming our dreams.I hear Prime Minister Gujral is fighting elections from Jalandhar, my ancestral town. Perhaps I will try again when he is back in power.

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