BY PERVEZ HOODBHOY
Six years ago while on a speaking tour of nearly 25
schools, colleges and universities across India, I discovered that only
a handful of students had ever seen a living, breathing Pakistani. None
had heard an academic from across the border speak. A 12-year-old school
student, who obviously did not know Hindi and Urdu were similar,
wondered aloud how a real Pakistani could be speaking their language.
For these puzzled students, Pakistanis are alien people belonging to an
adversary country, not next-door neighbours.
The numerous misconceptions and misunderstandings I
encountered must be still greater today. With pre-1947 family links
slowly withering away, the two countries are travelling on separate
economic and cultural trajectories. As travel barriers become ever
higher, their respective populations are becoming progressively more
unfamiliar and estranged from the other.
This is by deliberate design. Not long ago, Indian
scientists and professionals participated in conferences in Islamabad,
cricket matches drew large numbers into either country and schools
occasionally sent their students over to the other side. But now tourist
and visitor traffic is a trickle. Both South Asian states share the
Visas are the obvious control instruments. In principle,
technology and ease of travel should have made things easier. Not so.
While applying for an Indian visa that would enable me to speak at a
conference in Delhi, I was initially pleased to see that I could now
apply online instead of the older, cumbersome procedure. But as it
turned out, there is a special form for Pakistanis that demands
excruciating, irrelevant minutiae. One’s first instinct is to give up on
a hopeless task. A technically poor web portal design adds to the
Why the special treatment for Pakistanis? The Indian
establishment says it fears terrorism. But while reasonable caution is
understandable, one would have hoped for a sense of proportion and a
more reasoned approach. The overwhelming majority of Pakistanis who
apply are the aged and the infirm, professors and doctors, businessmen
and professionals and the occasional tourist. Armed terrorists from
Pakistan have indeed crossed borders. But they have gone by boat,
crawled under fences and climbed difficult mountains. To penetrate
airports or checkpoints and cross multiple hurdles is not the terrorist
But let’s say that you still somehow put together an
application. Thereafter, you must present yourself at the Indian high
commission. For this, you must somehow obtain permission to enter
Islamabad’s “Red Zone”, the highly fortified diplomatic enclave which
houses foreign embassies. Getting past the first security checkpoint,
bristling with machine guns placed behind concrete barriers, is no easy
task. But as I recently discovered, the ordeal will have just begun.
As I attempted to enter the Indian high commission
building’s visa section, a swarm of Pakistani intelligence agents
surrounded me. Their body language was intimidating, their manner
offensive. As with other visa applicants, question followed question.
They demanded my personal identification, phone numbers, family details,
what was to be discussed in the conference that I was to attend,
invitation letters and proof of correspondence. All this while sneering
at my patriotism.
Halfway through this interrogation, I lost patience. If
I was spying for India, why on earth would I come for a visa interview?
But these uncouth men were executing a political agenda and not open to
reason. In their frozen mindset – and that of their masters – India was
Pakistan’s enemy number one.
Faced with unexpected resistance, the underlings called
their superior. Expectedly, he supported his men who, he said, were
defending the safety and security of Pakistan. I found his argument
unacceptable. What did Pakistan’s national security have to do with
harassing visa applicants?
An argument became inevitable. He and his men were
unmoved by the fact that their spy institution had spectacularly failed
to gather intelligence necessary for protecting the life and property of
Pakistani citizens. In fact, it had lost three of its regional
headquarters to attacks by religious terrorists and suicide bombers.
Home-grown terrorists have killed many more Pakistani soldiers and
citizens than were lost in Pak-India wars since 1947.
My admission into the building was refused, a violation
of my rights as a Pakistani citizen as well as of international law.
They won, I lost. They had achieved their goal of keeping a Pakistani
from visiting India. The gulf between the countries grew just a tad
I do not know how it is from the Indian side. Are the
requirements for a visa just as dauntingly obtuse? Do RAW (India’s
Research and Analysis Wing) agents harass and insult those Indians
applying to the Pakistan high commission in Delhi for a visa? Let the
angry Indian speak up from his side of the wall, as I have from mine.
(Pervez Hoodbhoy teaches physics in Lahore and
Islamabad. This article was published on the website NewAgeIslam.com on
October 28, 2011.)