Syeda Hameed | 30 JANUARY, 2015

The Hostile Indignity of Wagah

Created hostility between India and Pakistan at the Wagah border impacts on ordinary travellers


I have just returned from a ten day visit to Pakistan. Contrary to all notions, I had gone there to grab a few quiet days. I wanted to do some writing, uninterrupted. And I planned my trip with the understanding that peace is within me, within us. We carry it wherever we go just as we carry our conflict wherever we go, no matter in what part of earth we seek our solitude.

This piece is not about the killings and chaos in Pakistan which daily assails our senses through media. It is not about Pakistan's reaction to the Obama visit, nor about the bijli crisis which has plunged 60 percent of the country in darkness, or the gas shortage which is responsible for fewer dishes at meals. No I want to write about a different face of Pakistan. It is about borders and boundaries and about those who cross them.

Yesterday two of us crossed Wagah. My companion Gunjan is a student of conflict studies, co author of a book we wrote about my ten year tenure as Member of India's (now abolished) Planning Commission. While I stayed in Lahore and wrote, she took a bus from there to Karachi so that she could see and savour the spectacular landscape of Punjab and Sind. From there she flew to Larkana, the famous home of the Bhutto's, to visit the site of the 5000 year old Indus Valley Civilization.

At the border we were required to walk quite a distance to the Immigration post; since the bomb blast last year extreme caution is being exercised. I did not mind the long walk because it was a beautiful sunny morning, the chill had gone. Our quli was an old man Baba Karamat from Mewat. It turned out that he was from village Punhana, where Gunjan and I had done some work during Planning Commission days. He looked at me with questioning eyes. 'You come here often? You are from Dr Mubashir's family?' I said yes, I was from the family. 'He used to be our vazir e khazana (Finance Minister) never never any hera pheri, not one paisa. You understand, khara imaandaar aadmi. And today....'

We reached the hall and presented ourselves to the immigration officials. Some scrutiny, some apology, some smiles, altogether a pleasant farewell from the Pakistan side. Another few minutes of walking and we reached 'no man's land'. BSF was polite and waved us towards the bus which would take us to the Indian check post. There was a large group of Pakistani students from a public school going who were going for some competition in Gurgaon. Young chattering boys and girls vibrant, fun filled, thronged the empty halls of the check post. A young man snapped at me 'you... you... fill a foreigners slip' 'But I have an Indian passport'. He glowered at me.

Another man at the immigration window looked amused and said 'You will have to wait'. 'Is your system booting up' I ventured to speak. He looked at me and declined to answer. Gunjan saw I was tired so she asked me to sit down while she stood patiently. He looked at every page of my passport including the old ones which were clamped on it. Up and down, up and down he looked looked and looked. Finally stamp stamp stamp.

The next stage was at the customs. For twenty years I have travelled this route to visit family; and not always as Member Planning Commission. In the past they barely looked at my single suitcase. So I presumed I would go unsearched. On the customs slip I had written 'former Member Planning Commission' in the 'Occupation' column. The sullen man hauled my single suitcase on the table. The customs man proceeded to open it. I could not read his name because his jacket was buttoned up to his neck. He then dug his hands right into my clothes; shalwars, undershirt bras, panties,dupattas, prayer mat, everything. At the bottom of my suitcase I had packed a large volume of Sufi poetry, bound and embossed. He yanked it out of its beautiful cover. 'Ye kya hai' I don't know what he expected to see when he saw the poetry of Bulleh Shah and Amir Khusro in Urdu. He was turning pages while I watched my life lying scattered on the customs table, my personal intimate life. The young man in the buttoned jacket was presiding over the bits and pieces of my belongings.The last thing he did was to finger the few hundred rupee notes in my wallet, lying with old photos of beloved people. I felt sad.

It was bizarre walking into the sunlight from that room of mental torture. One man who had been casually watching his boss roughing up my luggage rushed out to open the taxi door. He probably wanted a tip. I looked with gratitude at the familiar face of the the taxi driver who had been waiting for us.

The milestone near Delhi Gate reads Lahore 310 miles. 70 years of acrimony between the two countries has made this 310 a formidable distance. I was happy when I entered the age bracket where visa on arrival was agreed upon by the two countries. Two years after the agreement there is no sign of it, as if the governments have forgotten an inconvenient promise. My own experience yesterday has left me bruised and thoughtful and uncertain if I will go that way again. The indignity I am sad to say was evident on our side, whether by design or accident, I cannot say.

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