Haji Muhammad Ayub looks through old photos of his visits to Srinagar | All photos by the writers


The India-Pakistan conflict’s human toll is tragic and ongoing, and the impact of this attrition on individuals caught in the crossfire is relentless.
Published July 9, 2023

Raja Alaf Khan resides in Chilyana village, located in the picturesque Neelum Valley in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK). A three-hour drive from Muzaffarabad, Chilyana is separated from Teetwal in India-held Kashmir (IHK) by the Line of Control (LoC). Many residents of Chilyana have close relatives in Teetwal. In fact, half of Raja’s family calls Teetwal home, and he also owns property there.

However, Raja’s family had to endure a heart-wrenching situation when his older brother, who resided in Teetwal, died in 2021. Since Raja and his family were not granted permission to cross the border to attend the last rites, they were forced to use binoculars to witness the funeral taking place across the border in Teetwal.

The family, torn apart by stringent border policies, could not embrace one another or share their grief. Instead, they could only witness the funeral procession through binoculars with tears streaming down their face.

A similar situation transpired in Sherwan village on the outskirts of Muzaffarabad. When 86-year-old Haji Muhammad Ayub’s nephew passed away in IHK last year, none of his family members on the other side of the LoC could attend the funeral to offer their condolences. Lying in bed covered with blankets, the octogenarian despondently remarks that he yearns to meet many of his blood relatives who reside in IHK.

For more than seven decades, relations between India and Pakistan have remained frosty at the best of times and virtually non-existent at the worst of times. In a collaborative piece, a Pakistani journalist and an Indian journalist explore how families on both sides of the border have been torn apart and continue to suffer because of the unending stand-off between the two countries…

Ayub requests his grandson to fetch a photo album. With tears welling in his eyes, Ayub carefully flips through the pages of the album, reliving cherished memories spent with his relatives in Srinagar in IHK. He points to a photo on the room’s wall and sorrowfully reveals, “That’s my nephew, Pir Muhammad, who died in 2022.” Due to the suspension of transport services between India and Pakistan, it was simply impossible for Pir’s family members in Sherwan to travel to IHK.

The heartache and sorrow families such as these have endured, and continue to endure, unfortunately have a storied seven-decade history. India and Pakistan share a complex and tense relationship, characterised by a long history of political disputes, military conflicts and strained diplomatic ties. The India-Pakistan conflict’s human toll is tragic and ongoing, and the impact of this attrition on individuals and communities caught in the crossfire is relentless.

 Teetwal lies just across the river from Chilyana
Teetwal lies just across the river from Chilyana

A land divided

One of the primary sources of tension between India and Pakistan is the Kashmir dispute. Both countries claim their right to control all of Kashmir, but they administer different parts of the territory. The LoC was established between India and Pakistan as a ceasefire line and it divided the administration of the territory between the two countries.

Although the ceasefire line was initially considered a temporary measure in 1949, the partition of Kashmir along that demarcation has endured. The ceasefire line, with a few minor changes, was renamed the LoC after the Simla Agreement in 1972.

The Kashmir conflict has resulted in several wars and cross-border skirmishes. The issue remains unresolved, with periodic outbreaks of violence and border clashes.

Historically, IHK enjoyed a unique position within the country, as granted by Article 370 of the Indian constitution. This article provided substantial autonomy to the region, including its own constitution, a separate flag and control over most matters, except foreign affairs, defence and communications.

On August 5, 2019, India revoked the privileged status that Article 370 had granted to the region for 70 years. Following the revocation, Pakistan strongly condemned this development, downgraded diplomatic ties with India and suspended all trade with the country. For residents of Kashmir, both in India and Pakistan, meeting families across the border was already riddled with bureaucratic and logistical problems. Ever since August 5, 2019, the process has become even more stringent.

However, the ramifications of what transpired in the aftermath of India’s decision to revoke Article 370 stretched beyond just Kashmir. Current policies have made it close to impossible for people living in either Pakistan or India to cross the border in order to visit their families.

The Muzaffarabad-Srinagar bus service was suspended in 2019, and since then there has been no transportation link between the neighbouring countries in Kashmir. This has led to a sense of helplessness and frustration among the common people caught in the conflict.

Nonetheless, the people of the two Kashmirs soldier on and try to maintain and respect ties despite the divisions. For instance, when somebody passes away on either side of the border, the other side expresses solidarity by postponing weddings and celebratory events.

But families have to be cautious when it comes to maintaining these ties, because communication between families in the two Kashmirs is difficult and laden with peril. Raja says that intelligence organisations in both countries record phone calls in Kashmir. Sometimes, even a harmless wave to a parent or cousin across the border can land a person in serious trouble.

“Mumtaz Zahra Baloch, Spokesperson of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Pakistan, asserts that Pakistan has not restricted visitors from India, including those who belong to divided families. According to Baloch, the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi issues visas after fulfilling necessary procedural requirements. “As for travel across the LoC,” Baloch says, “it was India that suspended the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar bus service in 2019.

“Pakistan accords priority to humanitarian matters,” she says. “However, it is noteworthy that India’s illegal and unilateral steps of August 5, 2019, in India-occupied Jammu and Kashmir have vitiated the bilateral environment. In order to have improved connectivity and greater people-to-people-contacts, it is imperative that a conducive environment is created, for which the onus lies on India.”

A special visa called the No Objection on Return to India (NORI) visa is granted to Pakistani brides who marry into Indian families. Obtaining the NORI visa is important but also very difficult. The NORI visa is an interim arrangement which exists until the holder is eligible to apply for citizenship. However, the person in question must live uninterruptedly in India for seven years in order for them to be considered for Indian citizenship.

“Easier to go to Canada”

The Indian and Pakistani governments do not issue tourist visas to Pakistani and Indian nationals. Citizens of India and Pakistan can travel to their neighbouring country only if they have family there and are travelling to meet relatives. But even this visit is riddled with bureaucratic hurdles.

Visas are issued only to pre-approved cities or towns. Suppose a visitor visa is granted to someone from Pakistan to travel to a particular state, such as Rajasthan, or a particular city, such as Mumbai. In that case, they can only move around in that city/state and not venture elsewhere.

“It’s easier to go to Canada!” says Shazman Sharif, who relocated to Bengaluru, India, from Karachi after marrying an Indian man in 2005.

A special visa called the No Objection on Return to India (NORI) visa is granted to Pakistani brides who marry into Indian families. Obtaining the NORI visa is important but also very difficult. The NORI visa is an interim arrangement which exists until the holder is eligible to apply for citizenship. However, the person in question must live uninterruptedly in India for seven years in order for them to be considered for Indian citizenship.

Sharif, who moved to India after marriage, had to demonstrate that she would stay in India if she was granted Indian citizenship. As long as a person living in India holds a Pakistani passport, they cannot work, study, travel, or even have a bank account. If Sharif travels to Pakistan now, things could become problematic for her, since she has surrendered her Pakistani nationality and now has an Indian passport.

Getting a Pakistani visa is a daunting task. Even if the visa is approved, Sharif says that she has to contemplate whether or not she should travel to Karachi a dozen times because there are no direct flights. “Once you arrive in Pakistan, you have to report to the local police station,” she explains, “and before you leave, again, you have to report to the police station.

“When I travel to Karachi to meet my siblings,” she says, “I have to provide details of where and with whom I am staying, including their address, gas bill, electricity bill and other information.”

After getting married and moving to India, Sharif felt homesick. She yearned to travel to her native country and meet her family. However, the hurdles and challenges she had to navigate in order to travel from India to Pakistan prevented these meetings. This left Sharif emotionally drained. “When you see so many obstacles, you lose the spirit to endure this drudgery to be able to visit your family,” she says.

Sometimes she dreams that she is taking a direct bus to Karachi, “I say to myself: ‘Oh my God, it was so easy to reach Karachi. I never knew.’ But then I realise it was just a dream. It has happened to me so many times. I dream I’m in Karachi, taking a bus and carrying gifts for my sisters. But then I wake up and say, ’Things are still the same — difficult.”

Sharif says that there should be some arrangements, such as a visa on arrival, for people like her who have relatives on both sides.  “They should grant me a visa for more than 30 days if they know I am going there to meet my relatives,” Sharif argues. “If they give me a 30-day visa, the visa extension should be hassle-free.

“At present, if I travel to Karachi with a 30-day visa and want to extend my stay, I’ll have to visit the home ministry. I’ll have to fill out forms, pay an amount, stand in a queue for a bank challan, deposit my passport, and return after some days to collect my passport. It cannot be done in an hour. It takes days. That’s yet another obstacle.”

As cross-border marriages continue to happen, new difficulties in acquiring visas keep cropping up, making wedding celebrations impossible. As a result, some have resorted to using innovative channels to popularise family separation issues.

 Farzana and her sons depend on visas which need extensions every two years in order to stay in India
Farzana and her sons depend on visas which need extensions every two years in order to stay in India

Love in the time of division

On a chilly January day earlier this year, 24-year-old Muzammil Khan and his family in Jodhpur, India, were filled with excitement and anticipation. Clad in traditional shalwar kameez, Muzammil sat nervously beside the Islamic cleric solemnising his marriage that day. However, this wedding was far from ordinary. It was about to bridge the vast divide between India and Pakistan.

The story of Muzammil’s union with 18-year-old Uruuj Fatima began when his grandfather arranged their marriage after visiting relatives in Pakistan.

In Rajasthan, and other parts of India, many families prefer to wed within their communities and maintain relationships with acquaintances across the border. However, fate placed an insurmountable barrier between Muzammil and Uruuj, as his bride-to-be resided in Mirpurkhas, Pakistan.

In the weeks leading up to the wedding, Muzammil desperately sought a travel visa to Pakistan. He wanted his family, who had encountered obstacles in obtaining visas, to accompany him as part of the traditional baraat [wedding procession] that accompanies the groom.

Despite his best efforts, the bureaucratic difficulties seemed insurmountable to Muzammil. Determined to highlight the hardships faced by families attempting to travel between the two countries for marriages or to visit relatives, Muzammil decided to proceed with an unusual wedding arrangement.

On the day of the wedding, Muzammil sat beside the maulvi at the venue reserved for the occasion, surrounded by his loved ones. Meanwhile, on the other side of the border, Uruuj sat in front of a laptop at her home in Pakistan. She wore a peach-coloured bridal outfit and was surrounded by her close family members.

As the ceremony began in Jodhpur, a large LED screen dominated the wedding hall, projecting Uruuj’s image onto the screen. The bride and groom exchanged vows, guided by the maulvi’s solemn words.

News of this unique cross-border marriage quickly spread through the local media, shedding light on the difficulties faced by individuals traversing the challenging path between the two countries, whether for marriage or visiting relatives.

 Uruuj Fatima and Muzammil Khan were finally reunited in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, six months after their online wedding
Uruuj Fatima and Muzammil Khan were finally reunited in Jodhpur, Rajasthan, six months after their online wedding

Uruuj and Muzammil consider themselves

lucky. It typically takes a Pakistani woman married to an Indian man several months to join her husband and in-laws in India. This is due to a prolonged wait to obtain a visa. However, because the unconventional nature of their wedding caught the attention of local media, the newlyweds found themselves in a serendipitous position.

Because of this increased exposure, Uruuj’s visa application was expedited. The local media also covered her arrival in Jodhpur after crossing the Wagah border in Punjab, six months after her virtual wedding.

Muzammil and his family thank Gajendra Singh Sekhawat, a union minister in the Narendra Modi-led central government, for expediting the visa process. Moreover, they celebrated their weddings in India and Pakistan with their families once they got their visas. “I got to dress up as a bride three different times,” says Uruuj, her smile lighting up her eyes, “Once online, once in Pakistan and once here in Jodhpur.”

In no man’s land

In a different part of Jodhpur, 55-year-old Farzana is cautiously optimistic about Muzammil and Uruuj’s union. Like Uruuj, Farzana arrived in India as a bride from Pakistan in 1997. Sitting in her two-room home located in the cramped lanes of the Bamba neighbourhood, she laments that no woman should marry into a family living across the border.

In 1997, Farzana married Sajid, an Indian man, and settled in Jodhpur. Later, she returned to her maternal home in Hyderabad, Sindh, to give birth to her sons. As a result, both of her sons hold Pakistani passports. Now grown up, her sons are yet to settle down in India since they are Pakistani nationals.

Farzana wonders if her sons will ever have their own families and be able to prosper in India. “Nobody will give their daughters’ hands in marriage to my sons because they are yet to be granted Indian citizenship,” says Farzana.

She has been tirelessly navigating the citizenship application process for herself and her sons, seeking updates for two decades. She has not heard a word from the Ministry of Home Affairs in New Delhi, which is responsible for making these decisions.

She has resided in India for over 20 years, occasionally visiting her family in Pakistan. Officials whom Farzana spoke to in Jodhpur speculated that the delay may be due to her regular visits to relatives in Pakistan. Unfortunately, Farzana faced multiple personal losses, including the passing of her father and sister, which required her to travel to Pakistan during those difficult times.

As previously explained, one of the requirements to acquire Indian citizenship is that one must spend seven years in India without visiting Pakistan. Only then does the process begin. Farzana endured seven difficult years in India, during which she did not visit her family in Pakistan. After those seven years, when she submitted her citizenship application, she was told to wait for a call from the government.

When she attempted to track her application with the authorities in Jodhpur a few years ago, she was told that her file had been disposed of to a junk seller. She then resubmitted her application online, which required many documents, some of which were perplexing. Farzana recalls, “They asked me to submit my mother’s passport [her mother was an Indian who had married a man from Pakistan] which she used during her youth. Fortunately, I had it with me.”

She made numerous visits to the local relevant offices, only to be met with the standard response that she would receive a phone call regarding her application. This prolonged wait meant she couldn’t visit her family for five years, including her ailing father. “I carry on because God gave me the strength to persevere,” she says.

Financial constraints prevent her from travelling to the capital New Delhi to personally track her application. She says that, even if she had the financial resources, she is not educated enough to understand the minute details of the citizen application process.

Farzana diligently submitted every requested document. But the continuous demand for additional documents, and her limited resources, added to her burden. “I firmly believe that no woman should marry across the border, if they have the choice,” Farzana asserts. “We need to end these forced separations.”

Farzana’s husband, Sajid, adds that people have passed away without ever receiving their visas or their citizenship being granted. Farzana admits that they simply lack the time, funds and knowledge required to fight this case through the legal channels.

Farzana and her sons depend on visas, which need extensions every two years in order for them to stay in India. Furthermore, she decided not to take her sons to Pakistan to meet their relatives, hoping that this would expedite their Indian citizenship application. She and her sons live in constant fear of being deported to Pakistan. Her sons also face suspicion and scrutiny due to their Pakistani citizenship. “I constantly remind them to be extra cautious and stay away from trouble,” she says.

She recalls that when Sajid was being wheeled in for heart surgery in 2020, he said something which saddened and shook her. “He told me,” Farzana says, “that if the surgery was unsuccessful and he passed away, I should immediately return to my family in Pakistan for my safety and security.”

At the time, she wondered that, even if she took his advice and returned to Pakistan, who would support her there? Moreover, her sons would be thrown into unfamiliar circumstances and a new environment, which would completely upend their lives.

“I don’t have big demands,” Farzana says. “I just want to see my family grow and my sons settle into their lives.” Despite repeated attempts to contact the Indian High Commission in Islamabad for their comments on this story, there was no response.

Unfortunately, accounts like these ones are not unique. Numerous individuals like Farzana, Uruuj, Sharif, Ayub and Raja find themselves trapped

amidst the political and policy conflicts that India and Pakistan are mired in. As a result, these people have endured prolonged emotional struggles due to this on-going dispute.

However, their resilience remains intact as they continue to hope for a peaceful resolution and the fundamental human right to reunite with and embrace their loved ones.

It’s high time that both countries’ governments respect the needs of their citizens.

One can only hope that Pakistan and India take action to ensure that these cross-border families are no longer held hostage by this unending rivalry, and that the untold trauma and misery brought on by this dispute is finally put to bed.

Governments of both sides must work to facilitate these families by removing the insurmountable obstacles that hinder the possibility of their reunification.

Umar Bacha is an investigative journalist and Dawn’s correspondent in Shangla, Pakistan. He writes on human rights and social issues, climate change, art and culture. He tweets @umar_shangla

Puja Bhattacharjee is an independent journalist based in Kolkata, India. She writes about health, politics, public policy, environment, science, art and culture. She tweets at @pujabhattach

Reporting for this story was supported by the International Centre for Journalists

Published in Dawn, EOS, July 9th, 2023