Pakistan: Report what?

Written by Beena Sarwar | Published on: September 1, 2007
Simple answers, complex situations

Anis Haroon, the well-known women’s rights and peace activist, relates a story about the time she visited Bangalore, India, in 1989 to attend a South Asian women’s conference. She was among the three Pakistani participants but the only one to have a ‘police-reporting visa’. This led to a memorable incident at the local police station, at a time when few Pakistanis were able to visit India and vice versa…

Pakistan-India relations had for years been marked by acrimony and tension at the best of times, punctuated by outright war at others, the most bitter of which was still a not too distant memory – 1971, when Bangladesh won its liberation from Pakistan with India’s help. But by 1989 there was a different atmosphere. The cold war was over. So was the Afghan war. Those were the heady days of the ‘restoration of democracy’ in Pakistan. Gone was Gen Zia-ul-Haq who had taken Pakistan in an altogether different direction than envisaged by earlier leaders. Gone were Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto and Indira Gandhi and their tense competitive relationship, particularly since 1971. A cautious thaw in Pakistan-India relations was discernible with the new generation of leadership symbolised by Benazir Bhutto and Rajiv Gandhi, both of whom had recently come into power in their countries, holding out the promise of participatory democracy and better neighbourly relations.

But all the years of a lack of contact between Indians and Pakistanis had made the people of either country almost an alien species to each other – and it took a grumpy subinspector to bring home the ridiculousness of this enforced separation, when visas were difficult to obtain – and then only for those visiting relatives across the border. The eighties saw the formation of the South Asia Association for Regional Cooperation in 1984 and the rise of the NGOs. Many individuals and NGOs began to form regional alliances to discuss issues of mutual concern – the earliest such meetings were focused on safe ‘non-political’ issues like environment and women’s rights, and played a crucial role in bringing people together on these platforms, particularly Indians and Pakistanis.

It was in this context that Anis Haroon, in India to attend one of the first of such regional meetings, found herself outside a police station at the remote suburb of White Plains in Bangalore, armed with her ‘police-reporting’ visa and accompanied by a conference volunteer.

South India is another country for many North Indians and Pakistanis. The only common language is English and some Hindustani. The following conversation took place in a mixture of both, with some frustrated exclamations in mutually incomprehensible Urdu and Kannada escaping the protagonists from time to time.

"Hello, I’m a Pakistani," Anis announced, waving her green passport at the drowsy subinspector inside the police station.

Grunt. "So?"

"I’ve come to report," she persisted.

The policeman finally looked up, displeased at being disturbed. "Report what?"

"I have to report my arrival."

"Why?"

Nonplussed silence, then: "...Because I was told I must."

He seemed more alert suddenly. "Are you here illegally?"

"No."

"Have you lost your passport?"

"No..."

"Your ticket then?" Inspector a bit irritable by now.

"No but..."

"Have you lost your luggage? Has someone misbehaved with you?"

"No, no, no." Anis also somewhat irritated.

"Then WHAT are you reporting? Go away and stop wasting my time!"

With this bit of irrefutable logic, the man flapped Anis and her companion out of the police station and returned to his snooze.

Perturbed at not having the precious stamp attesting to her legal sojourn in India, they reluctantly began to turn back when the station house officer put-putted up on his motorbike. A superior officer! He would understand the complexities of Pakistan-India relationships and legal requirements! The two women explained the situation and the SHO went inside to confront his recalcitrant junior. After five minutes of loud arguments in Kannada, the visibly annoyed subinspector beckoned in the source of annoyance, who returned inside meekly to present her passport to him.

Grumbling loudly in Kannada, he scribbled something on the police reporting form, and gave back her green passport (thankfully duly stamped) and gestured her away. Safely outside, Anis Haroon looked at what he had written: "A Pakistani has come to this police station to report. But she has nooooothing to report."

Thankful to at least have the precious stamp attesting that she had ‘done the needful’, Anis returned to the conference where she recounted the story.

Later, Shoaib and Salima Hashmi made a skit out of it, which they played out in front of Rajiv Gandhi and Benazir Bhutto – both reportedly laughed a great deal at the ridiculousness of the situation, which was actually a true story. But their personal response to the story notwithstanding, neither was able to do away with the visa requirement that Pakistanis and Indians visiting each other’s countries must report to the police within 24 hours of arrival and departure (although this condition is occasionally waived).

A child of 15 or a grandmother of 70 – unless they have the connections to obtain a waiver, all Indians and Pakistanis visiting each other’s country must present themselves to the police after arrival and then before departure. The logic of this requirement defies all reason.

The subinspector in Bangalore in 1989 hadn’t caught on yet because there were, at that point, so few visitors from Pakistan, but the only beneficiaries of this archaic and discriminatory requirement are the police, who make a nice extra packet every month by facilitating such reports.

As Dr Mubashir Hasan (founding member of the Pakistan Human Rights Commission) notes, even when the rulers try to end this requirement, the bureaucracy stands in their way – he cites the specific example of Nawaz Sharif and Vajpayee during that historic bus trip in 1999 when the senior civil servants in attendance shot down this proposal made by the two prime ministers during their meeting.

With the composite dialogue dragging on and on, showing no results, surely this is something both governments can agree on – something that a grumpy police officer in Bangalore recognised years ago – that Pakistanis and Indians legally visiting each other’s countries have nothing to report. n

Courtesy: www.chowk.com

Archived from Communalism Combat, August-September 2007, Anniversary Issue (14th), Year 14    No.125, India at 60 Free Spaces, Neighbours