On a mid-October afternoon, I walked on a quiet, dusty street behind the Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi. Hundreds of men and women lined up behind the few grilled windows opening out of the forbidding walls – mostly the elderly applying for visas to see an ageing parent or a sibling separated by history and politics when British India was divided into India and Pakistan in 1947. After the counters closed for the day, several spread out bed sheets on the footpath behind the embassy, turned their bags into pillows and prepared to sleep in the open – squatters for a night.
Early morning, they would queue at the grilled windows, shuffle their piles of documents – invitation letters, copies of identity cards and address proofs of their relatives in Pakistan – and pray the visa officers didn’t turn down their request to visit a dying relative or attend a niece’s wedding. “My brother is sick. I haven’t seen him for five years. Maybe I will get to meet him once again,” said a woman from Gujarat.
I had been hearing similar stories for the past few months in Delhi, while interviewing families divided by Partition. Athar Abbasi is a metal worker in his late fifties based in Delhi’s Muslim quarter. In 1947, his brother was taken to Karachi and grew up to become a mechanic with Pakistan International Airlines. The brothers met four times in their lives – each time when Abbasi’s Pakistani brother would fly to Delhi. “He would call me from Delhi airport and I would take my wife and children with me and we would meet him in a hangar.” A few years back, Abbasi’s brother was killed during a robbery. Abbasi couldn’t make it to the funeral. His visa would have taken months. “The Partition never ceases to be over,” he told me.
In the summer of 1947, as India won its freedom and was partitioned, more than 10 million people were displaced – Hindus and Sikhs leaving their homes in what became Pakistan for India, and Muslims departing India for Pakistan. About a million people were killed. Muslim mobs attacked and killed Hindus and Sikhs departing Pakistan on trains and on foot; Hindu and Sikh mobs murdered Muslims leaving India. Trains travelling between India and Pakistan often arrived at their destinations filled with corpses.
Intizar Hussain, the Pakistani novelist, was 24 when his family migrated during Partition. I met Hussain, now 89, in Delhi last month and asked about his experience. “I couldn’t visit Delhi for 26 years after 1947. I had no idea the new countries would be so hostile and the worlds we knew would be closed to us for decades. It choked me and my inability to return home, to return to Delhi, drove my writing,” he said. An invitation to a literary festival opened the doors for Hussain. For the vast majority of ordinary citizens, such journeys remained a dream, and separated parents and siblings became fading memories.
On Wednesday and Sunday evenings, hundreds of Indian and Pakistani passengers wait for the Samjhauta Express on a dimly lit platform at the edge of a bustling Delhi railway station. Samjhauta is the Hindi and Urdu word for compromise. Also known as the Friendship Express, this bi-weekly train has linked Delhi and Lahore and united thousands of families divided since Partition. The train is slow and decrepit. Passengers travel 472km to the border town of Attari. After passing through immigration, they board a second train to go 3km across the border. Finally, once through immigration again, a third train takes them 40km to Lahore.
After the third India-Pakistan war, the peace treaty of 1972 agreed to establish communication and transport links. Four years later, the inaugural Samjhauta Express crossed the highly militarised border. The train continued its journeys, in spite of hostility over Kashmir throughout the 1990s. Two weeks after terrorists from Pakistan attacked the Indian parliament in 2001, the Samjhauta Express came to a halt. War seemed imminent. After several months of talks, India and Pakistan agreed to pull their troops back from the border but nothing symbolised the thaw more than the resumption of the Samjhauta Express in January 2004.
Travel between the two countries became harder after the 2008 attack on Mumbai by Pakistan-based terrorists, but four years later, the two countries have revised their paranoid visa rules. Applicants over 65 years of age will now get visas on arrival. Businessmen will be allowed to travel to five cities without having to report to the police every morning. Other small steps in the works – allowing the Pakistani cricket team to play in India, allowing mobile phone users roaming facilities across the border, allowing Indian banks to open branches in Pakistan and Pakistani banks in India – are expected to help the two neighbours inch toward a better tomorrow, like a slow, frequently stopping train. Although they remain a long way from an answer to difficult questions like Kashmir, a poor woman from a remote Indian town might make it to see a dying brother one last time.
Basharat Peer is the author of ‘Curfewed Night’, an award-winning account of the Kashmir conflict. He is working on a book about India and its Muslims