I was The Hindu Pakistan correspondent from July 5, 2000, to May 25, 2006. It was on May 25, 2006, that I took my flight from Islamabad to Lahore, returning to India at the end of nearly six-year-long meaningful, intense and a truly historic phase in the history of ever turbulent, religious and secular life in Pakistan.
The period was chaotic and terrific for Pakistan after the United States of America made a determination that it was the forces commanded by Osama Bin Laden, supposedly operating from Tora Bora caves inside Afghanistan, that were responsible for bringing down the twin towers in New York. Predictably, Washington stuck a military death blow to the Taliban and the faithful of Bin Laden.
As if what was going on account of the American diktat and all that followed was not enough, Gen Musharraf and his regime got entangled in potentially what could have been a nuclear war with India thanks to the audacious attack on Parliament of India for which New Delhi blamed the elements from Pakistani with the blessings of the military and intelligence establishment. For nearly 11 months the Indian side mobilised 100,000 soldiers on the borders facing Pakistan and the then Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee had actually said it would be “aar ya paar ki ladai’’!
Full credit then to Vajpayee, who took everyone by surprise at a rally on April 23 in Srinagar. He extended a hand of friendship to Pakistan! A clever Musharraf grabbed the offer with both hands. The offer came when the relations between India and Pakistan had hit a new low after the 1971 war. The Indian mission was without a High Commissioner since New Delhi had recalled its then High Commissioner, Vijay K Nambiar, days after the Parliament attack, road, rail and air links between the two sides were cut, trade had been suspended and visas were issued rarely during the tense time.
From the hour of Vajpayee’s offer what followed for the next few years (it hit a roadblock after the Mumbai Taj hotel attack on November 26, 2008) was truly amazing. First move came from New Delhi with the announcement that seasoned diplomat, who was at that time Indian Ambassador in China, Shiv Shankar Menon, would be the new Indian High Commissioner in Islamabad. Menon subsequently rose to the position of country’s Foreign Secretary.
A bus link came from Srinagar to Muzaffarabad (the capital city of the Kashmir under the control of Pakistan). There was goods traffic on the same route since 2005. For the first time in the history of the relations between India and Pakistan, a Hurriyat delegation from Kashmir was allowed to travel by road from Srinagar to Muzaffarabad. Kashmir leaders of all hues (those who believed in the Indian Constitution as well as those who did not subscribe to it) had actually an opportunity to travel to Islamabad and meet the various stakeholders in peace as well as war! The rail link between Thar in Sindh on the Pakisatani side and Rajasthan on the Indian side, which was disrupted after the 1965 war, got restored and running, if not very smoothly. These were just a few positive developments which helped the people.
My opportunity to return to Pakistan came unexpectedly after a gap of 11 years.
I had always wanted to travel back to Pakistan. The opportunity came in November 2016 when I got invited to attend the wedding as well as a reception of a woman journalist friend from Lahore. The wedding was in Lahore followed by a reception in the same city and another one from the groom’s side in Islamabad. Call it a coincidence, in November the Press Club of India chose to organise a seminar on BRICS following the BRICS convention hosted by India at Goa in October. Pakistan was not invited at the conference at Goa. However, the Press Club of India decided to invite a representative of the Pakistan High Commission for the seminar.
THERE I bumped into Illiyas Nizami, a Political Officer with the Pakistan High Commission. I told him about the wedding scheduled in March in Lahore and expressed my desire for a visa to travel to his home country. The officer was positive in his response and said I could visit the mission just before the wedding.
I had applied for a visitor visa seeking permission to travel to Lahore, Islamabad and Karachi. Next trip I made to the mission armed with the visa application form along with my passport. He simply said the mission would get back to me about the outcome. The marriage was on March 23 and I had applied for a visa on March 16. On the afternoon of March 22, I got a call from the Pakistani mission informing me that I can come and collect my passport.
When I collected the papers, I realised that my request for a visit to Karachi had not been granted and the visa was valid for a period of 10 days from the day I stepped on the soil of Pakistan. In my excitement I had conveniently forgotten to look at the fine print on whether or not I was exempt from police reporting. It was only after I reached Islamabad on the fifth day of my visit that I realised that mine was a police reporting visa and I had failed to register myself at Lahore immediately on my entry into Pakistan. Thanks to the folly now I had to get an exemption certificate from the all powerful Interior Ministry in Islamabad and it took me seven trips on the back of a motorcycle of a journalist friend in Islamabad to the Interior Ministry and the police station in Islamabad where foreigners are required to register and obtain the certificate to leave the country!
My reservation on Shatabdi Express to Amritsar on March 23 was not confirmed. In effect, my plan of making it to the wedding on March 23 had gone awry.
On the afternoon of March 24, I boarded a bus from Amritsar to Attari border on the Indian side, which is two kilometres from Wagah border on the Pakistani side. The bus ride cost Rs 30. The bus drops one off two kilometres before the border checkpost. I took a cycle rickshaw, paying Rs 10 to the border checkpost.
I entered the main gate where the BSF sentry took a look at my passport, entered the details in a registry and directed me to the passenger hall where the immigration and customs formalities are done. A very old looking man caught sight of me as I was proceeding to the departure hall and said he would take my luggage for a fixed fee of Rs 150. He looked very fragile and stressed. I agreed to be bargain and he wheeled my luggage which was not much.
My ordeal started the moment I neared the entry point of the immigration hall as the BSF Jawan there, unlike his colleague at the main entrance gate, was, to say the very least, very hostile. I was the only one at the entrance of the hall. He began yelling at me: “Line mein khada ho (stand in the line)”. But, there was no line and no indicator; in fact, there was no one. I politely but firmly told him I am very much in the line and had not violated anything. That got his goat. How dare a fellow wanting to cross into Pakistan talk back to him. “Awaj neeche rakho. Jyada bakwas nahi. Dekh loonga (Keep your voice down. Don’t talk rubbish, I will at against you)’’, etc. I told him that I have done this 200 times and certainly was not intimidated by him. But he simply won’t let go of me. He searched me brusquely and, after giving me dirty looks, handed me over to another colleague.
The drama, which was completely avoidable, went on for nearly 15 minutes and it was only when they realised that I will not be intimidated by their behaviour, they let me go.
I was ushered into an empty vast hall. I was pounced—literally pounced—upon by two young women at the anti-polio vaccine counter. I was ordered to swallow what they insisted were anti-polio drops. I made it known that I will not obey, but they persisted saying since I was not carrying any certificate on polio vaccination, I will have to swallow the polio drops.
I walked away nonchalantly towards the officer in-charge of the immigration desk only to be confronted by another hostile individual. Accidentally, I had not taken off the earphones I had plugged into my mobile phone, which incidentally was playing some songs in my mother tongue, Telugu. I could hear the two woman from the anti-polio vaccine shouting to the immigration officer, complaining I had refused to swallow the drops and why my passport should not be taken up for a look.
Just at that time my earphones came undone and music blared. It was an opportunity for the officer to shout at me. “Yeh sangeet khatam karke aao. Yeh gana bhajana jab khatam khonge phir aana (Finish your music first. Come when you have listened to your music)’’, he screamed. Before I could say anything, he had heard from the woman at the anti-polio drops counter and ordered, “Wapas jao. Drops peeke aao (Go back and have the polio drops)’’. Too stunned to react, I went back. After I swallowed the drops, one of the women gave me a slip.
My ordeal re-commenced when I returned to the immigration officer. Even as I was at the counter, the officer was telling a Pakistani in very hostile terms that he will not let him cross till he produced the original copy of the visa given by the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi.
THEN it was my turn. The officer took hold of my paper and the visa granted by the Pakistani mission. “Who was granted you this visa? Whose handwriting is this? I cannot read anything,” he kept complaining. When I tried to explain to him that it was my handwriting and that I have a problem writing neatly, he was not satisfied. He then referred me to the other officer in-charge at the counter responsible for stamping the papers of diplomats and officials.
Another round of ordeal began with this officer wanting to know who I was, why I was travelling to Pakistan, etc. A passport is supposed to speak for itself and an immigration officer is trained to read every single detail about an individual within minutes after scrutinising a passport. By now he had learnt I was a journalist, had worked in Pakistan, had travelled with the Prime Minister and my last travel was with the President of India in July to Africa. He asked me when was the last time I went abroad. I told him I had gone with President Pranab Mukherjee in June 2016 on his Africa trip. “It was not June, it was July,” he said. He asked me all kinds of random questions and after about 10 minutes a woman liaison officer from the immigration office came there.
I introduced myself and she, who had just joined the service over a year ago, said she had read my despatches from Islamabad as well as Colombo when she was preparing for civil services. “Sir, you are most welcome to my office for a cup of tea. We will help you complete the immigration formalities sitting there,” she said. I accepted the invitation and went with her.
I told her of my not-so-polite and hostile encounter with the BSF guard at the entrance to the hall and wondered why there is so much hostility in the air. She said, “We hear this complaint from so many passengers crossing to the other side. I wonder what is the reason.” I told the young lady that it is not rocket science and she can herself make out the reasons if she keeps her eyes and ears around on the goings on in the so called departure hall.
AFTER spending nearly 30 minutes, with a hot cup of tea and some biscuits, she took me to the immigration counter. After all this, the grumbling of the officer at the counter had not stopped. It was with great reluctance that the officer finally stamped my papers after repeating all that he had earlier said to me.
After that, I managed to strike a brief conversation with the coolie I had engaged. He had witnessed all I had gone through in the last one-and-a-half hours. He was used to it. He told me that this is the new routine and that the business for coolies in the last few months is down. He said the officers and the border guards on the Indian side have been demonstrating open hostility.
Once a person obtains an exit entry on the passport, a BSF bus takes him or her to the Pakistani side of the border. The bus with me and essentially members of the Ajoka theatre troupe on board moved towards the Pakistani side of the border and dropped us before the arrival hall of the Pakistani immigration after about 10 minutes.
The picture at the hall was in total contrast to what I had witnessed. Moments after I had disembarked, I was ushered into the hall by a Pakistani ranger. It was 45 minutes or so before the border closed for crossings by ordinary passport holders. The immigration hall wore a deserted look. There were two officers at the counter, a woman and a man. The woman had brought her toddler son to the immigration office and the boy was happily fiddling with the desktop of the mother. The proud mother was showing off to her male colleague about how tech savvy her 3-4 year old son was!
The male immigration officer, who took passport as well as the visa paper, was very polite. He apologised saying that he will have to remove the staple of my two old passports as he was required to keep a photo copy of my visa entry, stamped on my passport by the Pakistani mission in New Delhi. He knew all about my host, her daughter who had got married last evening, the reception in Lahore (which was just about 23 kilometres from Wagah border) and about all other Indian guests who had arrived in the course of the last two days.
“You are late by a day as the wedding was scheduled yesterday. Anyway, you can make it to the reception scheduled later in the day,” he told me as he went about completing formalities so that he could stamp my official entry into Pakistani. The whole business was done in less than 10 minutes.
Even as he was engaged in my stamping my passport another officer from the immigration side came to inform him that two Indians who had crossed over to Pakistani earlier in the day were now crossing back into the Indian side. He was asking what could be business of the two suspicious looking young Indians, who had multiple entries into Pakistani, crossing in and out in just a day. He made out a case that the two young Indians should be questioned about what they exactly they did in Pakistan during the day and why they were returning in just a day. The officer who was looking at my passport as well as the lady officer agreed that indeed the Indian needed to be questioned. I do not what exactly happened after that.
It took me a little longer to find the customs officer and get the green signal to cross. There I was on the Pakistani side. From the arrival hall to the place where all Pakistanis wanting to cross over to the Indian side are to disembark, the distance is about half-a-kilometre.
Normally, a toy train ferries passengers from the arrival hall till the point where one can engage either a taxi or an auto-rickshaw for the onward journey to Lahore. But that day there was no toy train and I walked the distance lugging my luggage all on my own and walking all alone!