For a people-friendly visa regime

For a people-friendly visa regime

By Manvendra Singh

A death in the family led to my first encounter with a Pakistani national. This was before a fence came to be erected along the border between the two countries. Back then there was no terrorism word in the popular lexicon. Back then the concept of a border meant only a line across the sand dunes. Because all that separated my village from that of the visiting relative, were sand dunes, and sand dunes. For a school boy there was something cool about the fact that a relative visited from Pakistan. It would make for interesting tales once the 13 days of mourning and the enforced break from boarding school got over,.

I remember asking him how he came across. His reply was very matter of fact: he couldn’t have waited for the passport to come back from the Indian consulate in Karachi, stamped with a valid visa. For then his journey would’ve meant traveling all the way through Attari, then Delhi, and back to a village that was a mere overnight camel journey from his village. So he simply crossed the dunes, as our ancestors had done for centuries. Except that in his case it also meant crossing a border that now existed through the dunes. Nobody reported him, in India, or in Pakistan. He returned to his village, as simply as I did to my school in Ajmer.

That first encounter was to have a lasting impact on my senses. It became essential to visit the villages of my relatives across the dunes. But by the time I was old enough to make my journey, there was a war ending in Afghanistan, Punjab was on the boil, and Ziaul Haq was a few months away from carrying the case of exploding mangoes. I made the journey through Wagah and by the cheapest train tickets out of Lahore.

Over a rooftop barbecue in Karachi I described the woeful journey to a Pakistan Rangers officer. And he replied in as matter of fact manner as that relative had more than a decade ago. If I didn’t mind throwing away my passport he could have me delivered to Bombay in the boats that traveled almost every night. The romance of traveling on a dhow was appealing, but paled in comparison to being caught with a boatload of heroin. This was the second border crossing conversation to get lodged into my senses.

Entering public life exposed me to the challenges of life on the border sans visas. By then the border had been fenced. The fencing didn’t put an end to the trafficking in contraband, but it did end the spontaneity of marriages across the dunes, as well as the smuggling of cattle to Karachi. Now passports from Jaipur, and visas from Delhi, had become the reality of life. And with that the endless journeys to both capitals, chasing documents, and counting expenses. As I traveled the districts, the villages, and the hamlets, there were interesting tales about life before passports, before visas, and none involved surreptitious journeys, across the dunes, or on dhows.

Until the 1965 war, there existed a travel document, meant solely for journeying between the two countries. I saw a fading photocopy of one of these ‘indo-pak’ passports, in Gadra Road. Until the 1965 war intervened Gadra Road would be the Wagah of the desert, and Munabao-Khokrapar its Attari. There was no need to travel to Delhi for a visa then, remember the older residents. Crossing was possible on that special passport.

Further north, in Nachna, residents remembered crossing over to visit their relatives living in the area of Rahimyar Khan with travel permission from the local police station, on both sides. And this memory comes down to the early 1980s. Then there are the villages of Jaisalmer district that hadn’t shopped for groceries in India until the fencing came up in the middle of the 1990s. All of these memories came to influence my sensibilities about the border, and the ridiculous visa regime, for the residents of the desert.

National leaderships on both sides of the Radcliffe Line haven’t the time or the inclination to think about the desert. But the reality is that it has the largest divided family population living in proximity. There are an equal number of Hindus affected, as there are Muslims. It has been the most peaceful of all borders that India shares with any country. And yet they have to pay for the sins of the others.

This is the perfect place to install an entirely new visa regime, one that is based on the logic of geography, family, history, and the unique cultural sense of the desert. The suspicious intelligence agencies now restricting visa stamps could well find unimaginable levels of cooperation from the residents of the desert. For they simply want to hop over to the neighbouring village.

The writer represented Barmer-Jaisalmer in the 14th Lok Sabha (2004-09), and is currently editor-in-chief of Defence and Security Alert. Email: [email protected]

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