“I wasn’t informed of my mother’s demise because all forms of communication between India and Pakistan had been cut”, she* said. “It was the year 1971 and I was in Karachi. I received a telegram from a relative in London three days after she had passed away. There was nothing I could do.”
[audio http://i.dawn.com/2012/08/divided-families-audio-feature.mp3] [Click play to listen to podcast, featuring tales of families divided by the partition. Reporting Zuha Siddiqui, Edited/Produced by Sara Faruqi/Dawn.com]
The year 1947 holds tremendous importance in the lives of the people of the subcontinent. It marked a shift in ideologies of. The repercussions of the partition spread far and wide across this massive region, with reactions of the populace ranging from indignation and fury to joy and happiness.
This monumental event has been marked in history with bloodstains of a million men, women and children who lost their lives in the partition of India.
Sixty-five years later, families on both sides of the border are still suffering; though not because of persecution or lack of representation or due to the status of a minority, but primarily due to the volatile nature of relations between the governments of India and Pakistan.
Whilst economists and businessmen argue that recent years have seen an increase in trade between the two nations, the superficial cordiality established between the two countries, which have gone to war thrice since these 65 years, has not lessened the worries of travellers across the border between India and Pakistan.
Visa requirements for Pakistani citizens travelling to India include a form which can only be completed online and a sponsorship certificate that must be filled in by the hosts in India, stating their income status and testifying that the Pakistani visitor is of good character. After being filled in, the certificate must be sent to Pakistan via courier.
Furthermore, the hosts in India must also send via courier, copies that confirm their address and identity and the visitor from Pakistan must obtain a Police Certified Character Certificate. Amongst the pre-requisites for travelling to India is a salary greater than Rs25, 000 per month.
For Pakistani citizens belonging to a low socio-economic stratum of society, these requirements make the prospect of travelling to India to visit their near and dear ones, close to impossible.
Processing of visa forms takes a minimum of 30days and at present – unless the visitor happens to hold a diplomatic passport – stay in India cannot be extended for more than thirty days, even if the applicant is a former Indian citizen who has ‘adopted Pakistani citizenship due to marriage. Multiple entry visit visas are out of the question and Pakistani travellers to India are normally not allowed to visit more than two cities.
The government of Pakistan’s visa policies for Indian citizens are no different than the latter’s policies for Pakistani visitors.
For Muslims, Eid is normally a festival during which entire families gather for celebrations. But Mehnaz*, a resident of Lucknow, normally spends Eid alone.
“I live all alone in this massive house. My only sister is in Pakistan. I haven’t seen her since for 23 years. When my daughter married a Pakistani in 1992, I resigned to the fact that I wouldn’t see her very often in the years to come. I wasn’t with her when my grandson was born in 1999 because Kargil took place that year. Neither was I with her in 2002, when my second grandson was born because direct flights had been suspended between India and Pakistan and I am too old to endure long transits whilst waiting for connecting flights,” she says.
But Fatima* – a resident of Karachi who moved to Pakistan in 1960 – argues that although visa restrictions on both sides of the border haven’t wavered, advancements in technology have managed to bridge the communication gap that existed prior between families divided by the Indo-Pak border.
“In the 1960s, there was no Skype, no email, no text messaging. Tiny conflicts between the two countries would result in a complete clampdown of communication. Of course, maintaining virtual contact can’t replace being with your kith and kin in person – but it pacifies me. I am able to correspond with my relatives without having to wait for hours at an end for my call to connect via an operator or write letters that end up covered with dust at a remote post office – undelivered,” Fatima says.
Whilst the governments of North and South Korea – two nations oft meeting at points of conflict – have taken collaborative measures to facilitate travel of families broken by borders, one can’t help but wonder when Indo-Pak relations will reach a point where members of broken families will be able to cross borders with ease.
R Advani, who migrated from Lahore to Simla post-1947, says,“It’s been 64 years and the ice hasn’t melted; you can’t expect contentious relations to thaw overnight. But you can’t lose hope either. You can’t break the bond between the people of the subcontinent. We’ll skirt the restrictions, find ways to travel, make do with what we have and hope for a peaceful, cordial future.”
*names have been altered to protect privacy.