A couple of weeks ago when I thought of today, I planned to write a great piece on the Jaipur Literature Festival — the importance of such events, and its role in fostering India-Pakistan dialogue through interaction. I had planned to take three students (Tarhub, Ali and Sarmad) and one other faculty member (Dr Ejaz Hussain) — all first-time visitors to India — to the festival so that they could enjoy it — and India — and come back with fond memories and initiate more people to people contact. The students were keener because they were going to be the key people coordinating volunteers at the upcoming Lahore Literary Festival, which I have co-founded, and use the best practices from Jaipur. However, the reality of the India visit has been far from the rosy picture I had wanted to paint.
While all of us got our visas just in the nick of time, only I was exempted from police reporting. Not ever having had a reporting visa, I assumed that it would just be a simple visit to a registration office, and so not a big hassle. So we crossed over on foot from Wagah on January 24, and got to Attari. At Attari everyone was very cordial and we told the immigration and intelligence officials that we were planning to go from Amritsar to Jaipur on the overnight train and would stay there till January 29. Then we would go to Delhi and stay there till about January 31-February 1, 2013. So, all was reported and set. But when we got to Amritsar we heard that the Jaipur train had been cancelled, and so we had to take the afternoon train to Delhi and then go onwards to Jaipur. Undeterred by this change, we took a train to Delhi only to find that it was simply impossible to get a ticket to Jaipur that day. So we had no choice but to hire a rather expensive taxi, and got to Jaipur, sleepless and freezing, in the early hours of January 25. This is where the trip took a bad turn.
As required, I took everyone to the Foreigners Registration Office (FRO) in Jaipur for the formalities. However, they refused to register us and said that since Delhi had been mentioned first in the visa (with Jaipur afterwards) we had to go to Delhi first to register. We explained that we were never told of this requirement either at the Indian High Commission or the border, or else we would have obviously followed the law. Despite all this, the staff there, who were rather rude and patently anti-Pakistani, said that there was no way to skip another trip to Delhi. Interestingly, when I asked the in charge of the Pakistan cell there what the ‘rules’ were, (since he kept mentioning that we have broken a ‘rule’), he flatly refused to tell us the rules. Obviously, the fact that one needs to know the rules to follow them was lost on him.
As a result, we made another gruelling trip to Delhi. Our treatment at the Delhi FRO was in sharp contrast to the Jaipur experience. Not only were the staff really helpful and did all the formalities quickly, the Deputy Commissioner of Police apologised for the bad behaviour of the Jaipur staff and treated us to tea. He also asked me to write a letter of complaint about the Jaipur staff which we did. Since that morning was Republic Day in India, we could not get a bus or a train to Jaipur easily and only got an afternoon bus to Jaipur which got us there at around 9pm. The next morning, of course, we made the trip to the FRO in Jaipur, got registered, and then visited the local police station to again register.
So after entering India at 9.30am on January 24, we could only get to the Jaipur Literature Festival, our main purpose of visit, at 3pm on January 27 — a total of about 78 hours of travelling and registration hassle!
Issues like these are the real thorn between the two countries. I have met several high level officials in India and they have never been anything but kind and helpful. But this was my first experience with lower-level officials in India, and it was bad. As a matter of fact, all of my students said that they would not want to visit India again after this punishing visit. These youth are the future of both the countries, and if they develop such an image of the other side then peace really has no chance in the long term.
At the festival, several people mentioned that India and Pakistan have a shared culture and history, and therefore natural ties. However, culture and history is not lived through in our imagination, it needs interaction and dialogue. If you treat people like this (it is possible that it is the same case in Pakistan) and they never visit again, then eventually these ties will fade away. Already two generations have passed since Partition, and I believe that if interaction is prevented with actions like these the gulf created would lead to Pakistan and India sharing very little except geography within our lifetimes. We have great proponents of peace and cooperation on both sides, and Mr Mani Shankar Aiyar (former Union minister and Congress politician) helped us greatly in this visit, but if such visits, which should be routine, are treated in this manner no linkages between the people of the two countries — the real constituents here — will remain.
If Europe can become united after centuries of warfare and two world wars, then it is not impossible for Pakistan and India to become close friends, while retaining their sovereignty. However, while conversations are important at the high official level, it is the attitude of the lower officials and the interaction between the people of both countries which really counts. Let us give peace and goodwill a chance but let us also begin with the people.
Published in The Express Tribune, January 29th, 2013.