AMRITSAR: Crossing over to India through Wagah border can be an emotional experience, especially for those who know India only through the stories of their parents, official propaganda or worse, Bolllywood.
Most of the 12 parliamentarians invited by the Indian Federation of Chambers and Industries (FICCI) as part of the first Indo-Pak parliamentary dialogue had never seen India before. They nurtured mixed, mostly stereotypical notions about this country of over one billion people. “Funny, it’s the same sky, the same humid weather,” ANP’s Senator Farah Aqil could not resist saying the moment we crossed the border. Nawaz League MPA Hafiz Noman was amazed that people ‘look just like us’. As if weather and features would change after 10 yards. But then 10 yards can be longer than a lifetime — such being the reality of Pakistan and India.
Nawaz League’s MNA Mansab Dogar has suffered this reality the hard way. He lives in Pakpattan Sharif, a mere 30-minute drive from his native Ferozwalah in India. Yet it took him 65 years to cross over to the other side that his parents had always been talking about. He was dying to see if their Haveli in Ferozwala was as big as his father had told him; or if the village well still had water that his mother fetched every morning.
Pakistan’s Customs and Immigration cleared us in minutes but not before they almost forced us to have refreshments. This was typical of Pakistan’s VIP-worshipping culture. Not so in India. Call it good or bad, the elite is not pampered as much in India.
There was too much of bureaucracy and paperwork — India’s IT revolution had not reached its Punjab border. We had to fill long multiple forms. This was after a detailed visa application where one has to write the birth place of even grandparents – not always easy to remember.
Indian Customs officials had this nonchalant — damn these parliamentarians – attitude. Not just that they were checking every item in every bag they were slow, very slow. Our host and friend, journalist Jyoti Malhotra was visibly squirming on her toes as we were getting late for a reception in Amritsar. She just exploded when an official opened up toiletries of a female parliamentarian as if she was trying to smuggle drugs. “You cannot do that; for god’s sake, they are parliamentarian guests,” she protested. Jyoti wanted the customs officials to show some courtesy but they were adamant — as if to prove to us how strong the Indian bureaucracy was. It was funny that at one stage we the Pakistanis were trying to arbitrate between the two warring Indians.
After layers of multiple checks when we thought it was over, we were stopped again at the last gate. We were asked to get out and register ourselves separately with — equally infamous — (East) Punjab ‘Pullas’. Jyoti went through another round of negotiations before we could re-embark on the historical Grand Trunk (GT) Road — more popularly known as Jarneli Sarak that connects Peshawar with Calcutta. We were stuck somewhere in the middle of this 2500 km track wondering it must have been easier to travel when Sher Shah Suri built it 500 years ago.
“This would have triggered a dozen privilege motions in our parliament; good that we are on the wrong side of the border,” quipped PPP’s Senator Saeed Ghani. More seriously, MQM MNA Rasheed Godel concurred: “The trade between Pakistan and India is a non-starter if we do not sort out such bureaucratic red tape on both sides”.
The euphoria over the prospects of growing Pakistan-India trade is visibly manifested on the Wagah-Attari border. Both sides have expanded their trade service areas to cater to any volume of trade. Long queues of trucks carrying cement and chemicals wait on the Pakistani side and fruit, dyes and machinery on the Indian side. However, one sees bigger warehouses on Pakistani side, almost extending from Lahore to Wagah. One reason may be because Pakistan has allowed trade in only 103 negative items out of a list of over 1200 to be imported from India. But it was the transit exports from Afghanistan that constitute the bulk.
The road to Amritsar is definitely cleaner and greener on the Indian side. Lahore has expanded almost to Wagah exposing the ugliest side of the city. The industrial area close to Indian border is an eye sore. In contrast, the green fields on the way to Amritsar are refreshing. I could not miss Mansab Dogar curling up in his seat, almost talking to himself, ‘beautiful, very beautiful’. This admiration was not just about the picturesque beauty of east Punjab landscape. Also at work was an element of nostalgic stories that he had heard from elders of the 25 Dogar villages who migrated to Pakistan in 1947.
Not everything we saw was pleasant though. It was shocking to see too many people defecating on roadside – and with an abandon that was somehow difficult to imagine for Pakistanis. Another shock was to see domestic pigs roaming around freely. Somehow Bollywood has never shown that this unimaginable sight in Pakistan is a common practice in India.
Yet another shocker, though a pleasant one, was to see a 65-year-old woman riding a scooter. MQM’s Haider Rizvi was right that women in India were definitely more liberated than in Pakistan. It was common to see young girls, completely at ease in sleeveless shirt and jeans, commuting on flashy scooters as much as boys. Journalist politician Ayaz Amir aptly said that the Indian morality does not get threatened by what their women wear. People tend to stare less at women and foreigners in India. The reason is obvious: Indians are more accustomed to seeing people with different colours, caste and creed in comparison to largely homogenous Pakistanis.
Here we were trying to form opinions from a small sample, sometimes forgetting the immense diversity of India. More often than not, most Indians also see Pakistanis as a monolithic phenomenon. The diversity of Pakistan was personified by the Pakistani contingent. Their perspective on India differed as much as their views on Pakistan’s politics. ANP’s Bushra Gohar and Farah Aqil represented Bacha Khan’s legacy in Khyber Pashtunkhwa seeking friendlier ties with India. MQM’s Haider Rizvi and Rasheed Godil with family roots in India — UP and Gujarat respectively — saw the Indo-Pak détente in the larger perspective as opposed to ‘inter-Punjab bonhomie’. For Senator Saif Magsi, the only time Balochistan is mentioned in the Indo-Pak equation is when Pakistan accuses India of interfering in his crisis-torn province. The parliamentarians of the mainstream PPP and Nawaz League the issue was obviously seen through the national prism. Far from the madding Indo-Pak polemics, Mansab Dogar was focused on just one thing: visiting Ferozwala. His dream could not materialise because of some ‘logistical’ reasons. Sad.
September 28, 2012