In mid-July, Reena Verma entered her childhood home in Pakistan’s Rawalpindi for the first time since 1947. The frail 92-year-old woman, clad in a green dupatta and orange salwar-kameez, was overcome by emotion as she was greeted by an excited crowd, loud dhols and rose petals.
This was a rare visit, though. Over the past few years, few Indians and Pakistanis have had the opportunity to travel across the border. The recent animosity between India and Pakistan has turned the border into an iron wall. Even Partition and the massacres in 1947 did not wrench apart residents of the subcontinent so conclusively.
Potential visitors must negotiate an unusually strict visa regime, which involves extensive invitation documents and security verification. Visas are hard to come by. A gap of 28 months had passed in December when the two countries last issued visas to each other’s diplomats.
For many young Indians, it is a surprise to learn that the situation was not always so strained. No visas were required to cross the border until 1952. Historians have noted between Partition and the 1965 war, there was frequent people-to-people interaction, particularly between the two Punjabs – for pilgrimages, sports matches and private celebrations.
The two countries had solid economic ties. Between 1948-’49 India accounted for 20% of Pakistan’s exports and more than 50% of its imports. Indian banks had branches in Pakistan and vice versa. Pakistan gave India the status of “Most Favoured Nation” in the 1950s for trade.
Shopkeepers from Amritsar used to go to Anarkali, Shahalmi and Urdu Bazaar in Lahore to get their weekly supplies. People casually crossed over to herd sheep, farm their lands on the other side or meet each other.
One famous instance of a large-scale corssing was on April 5, 1955, when 30,000 Pakistanis descended on Amritsar to watch a police hockey exhibition match. The visitors were greeted with unbridled enthusiasm, they went shopping in the bazaars of Amritsar, were served meals by volunteers. Around 20% of the visitors were women.
Punjabi poets Ustad Daman and Ahmad Rahi were among those who visited from Pakistan. The hockey match inspired them to write their famous poems: Daman’s Lali Akhian Di, on the “red eyes” over tears shed due to Partition, and Rahi’s Mera Pakistani Safarnama on the pain of returning to Amritsar after the division.
There were many other instances of such literature. Mohan Rakesh wrote his classic Hindi short story titled Malbe ka Malik, or The Owner of the Rubble, on the coming back to a home ransacked during the Partition. The Indian cult classic Garam Hava – about a Muslim family that chooses to stay behind in India during Partition – also depicts the warm welcome Pakistani visitors receive.
It is said that in May 1964, when politician Sheikh Abdullah was in Pakistan to negotiate over the issue of Kashmir with General Ayub Khan at the hill station of Murree, news of the death of India’s first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru reached the delegation. The mood immediately turned sombre.
Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, who was Pakistan’s foreign minister then, ordered a Pakistan International Airlines plane to take the Indian journalists back home. Pakistan went into mourning with flags flown at half-mast and while the Pakistan National Assembly expressed condolences.
Tributes poured in from all over Pakistan and shops in Lahore, Karachi and other major cities began carrying a sign stating that Nehru had died. The next day, newspapers were full of headlines, editorials and favourable reports, although some were critical of him. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto also attended Nehru’s funeral.
This changed in 1965.
Pakistan’s attack on the disputed territory of Jammu and Kashmir escalated into a full-scale war. One consequence of this conflict was that goodwill evaporated and the borders were sealed, patrolled and protected.
In 1971, India intervened in the dispute over East Pakistan and helped with the creation of Bangladesh. Over time, both India and Pakistan became nuclear powers and fought another war – in Kargil in 1999. The long-standing issues of Kashmir and terrorism are well documented.
The inability to smoothen the ties and resolve these conflicts has worsened the tragedy of Partition. Many were unable to meet their relatives again or visit the ancestral homes and graves of their loved ones. People-to-people contact deteriorated.
The Partition generation with memories of a childhood on the other side of the border is nearly gone. But the grief and trauma of Partition deepened because of the wedge between the two nations.
In January, two brothers met after 75 years at the Kartarpur gurudwara, the shrine in Pakistan that is just 4.7 km from the Indian border. Indian pilgrims do not need visas to visit it. After being separated during Partition, Sikka Khan from Bathinda in Punjab was reunited with his older brother Mohammad Siddique from Faisalabad. The brothers, now elderly and white-haired, hugged and sobbed at the Sikh temple that houses the remains of Guru Nanak. Had ties between both two countries been humane, they could have met much earlier. It did not have to be this way.
The writer is a journalist from Lahore. Her Twitter handle is @ammarawrites.