August 14, 2022
By Rehan Piracha & Xari Jalil
When Reena Chhibber Varma was 15 years old, India and Pakistan were cracking apart. It was 1947, the year of Partition, one of the most traumatic events in the history of the world. Reena’s family had left their home in Rawalpindi and had moved to India, never turning back after that.
“We saw our parents cry a lot. For two years, they could not accept that they won’t return to their home,” said Reena, in an interview she gave to an international news site.
Reena tried several times to come to Pakistan to visit her ancestral home in Rawalpindi, but it was not before July 2022, when she was finally able to travel there – now at the age of 90.
In honour of Reena, and her memories of Partition, the man who now lives in what used to be Reena’s home, Muzammil Hussain, has even changed its name to Prem Niwas or the House of Love, while the lane has been named ‘Prem Gali’ or Love Lane. He has also put up a nameplate that says, ‘Reena’s house’ – a generous move indeed considering the narrative that Indians and Pakistanis are the worst of enemies.
Meanwhile, founded in 2018 by students from Oxford University, Project Dastaan (Tale) has launched a unique manner of crossing borders: through virtual reality (VR).
Several volunteers and filmmakers from Pakistan, India and the UK travel and record 3D videos and 360-degree landscape shots of what used to be home towns. Those who survived partition 75 years ago and are still alive today were children at the time they had to flee. The project aims to revisit survivors’ memories and document them, while also helping them to travel to places where they had not otherwise gone.
Sadly, when it comes to making actual personal visits, the situation is much less straightforward. In fact, many, even those who are public personalities or making peace visits are not given visas. States on both sides of the border have miserably failed in promoting or even barely allowing people to people contact.
An Indian delegation that was meant to join Pakistanis in Lahore on August 14 via Wagah Border, was denied visas. The delegation was an initiative of the ‘Friends of Pakistan in India’ forum, spearheaded by Mani Shankar Aiyar. Members of the Indian delegation were to participate in a peace moot hosted at the Wagah border on Independence Day on August 14, said organisers of the Indo-Pak event.
One of the members of the organizing committee on the Pakistani side, Mohammad Tahseen, who is also the convener of the Pakistan India Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIFPD) told Voicepk, that the delegation included two members of the Indian parliament and noted peace activist OP Shah.
“The forum had requested South Asia Partnership Pakistan to help facilitate their visit to Pakistan,” said Tahseen, who holds a designation as Executive Director SAP. “While Pakistani authorities had expressed readiness earlier to grant visas to the Indian delegation, just about on the eve of their arrival they had stopped responding to requests about information on their visas.”
According to Tahseen, the denial of visas to the Indian delegation has hit hard at any efforts that had been raised to revive people-to-people contact between India and Pakistan – a concept which has been stalled for over two decades – since the Kargil War.
“The Indian delegation had not posed any security risk as they were to return the same day via Wagah border,” informed Tahseen. “Only two Indian guests had requested a night’s stay in Lahore while others were to cross over to the Indian border after the event finished.”
Voicepk contacted Asim Iftikhar, the spokesperson of the Foreign Office, about whether Pakistan had expressly denied visas to the Indian delegation, but no response was received.
Meanwhile, nearly 20 organisations are collaborating on an online petition calling on the governments of South Asian nations, including India and Pakistan, to ease visa restrictions and enable freedom of trade and travel across borders.
The signature campaign, with nearly 40,000 endorsements so far, foregrounds nurturing people-to-people contact to build mutual trust and collaboration.
It draws attention to the plight of cross-border spouses and divided families. The Pune-based 92-year Reena Varma’s recent visit to her childhood home in Pakistan, after her visa application being rejected twice, has again underscored the need to ease restrictions particularly for the elderly and for those visiting family and/or old home across the border.
Significantly, this petition also calls for decriminalising inadvertent border crossings — a demand highlighted in a joint statement earlier initiated and coordinated by Sapan, and signed by over 31 organisations.
While addressing certain issues specific to India and Pakistan, the campaign references the liberalised visa regime of 2012 agreed upon by both countries. The new visa regime had introduced several measures aimed at facilitating the travel of business persons, tourists, pilgrims, the elderly and children.
Individuals and organisations endorsing the petition say they hope this will pave the way for a visa-free Southasia, or soft borders and visa-on-arrival.
Organisations across South Asia and the diaspora that are part of this initiative by the Southasia Peace Action Network include Aaghaz-e-Dosti, Aman Ki Asha, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, India Pakistan Heritage Club, Nijera Kori, Tehrik-e-Niswan, Samaaj, Sangat, Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy – PIPFPD, Laal Band, Uks Resource Centre, Centre for Peace and Secular Studies, Centre for Social Justice, Association of Peoples of Asia, Confederation of Voluntary Associations Peace Network, Roobaroo, Indo-Pak Book Lovers Club.
Speaking to Voicepk, senior journalist and Southasian peace activist Beena Sarwar said that this online petition was a continuation of a previous campaign for facilitating people-to-people contact between India and Pakistan.
“That campaign paved for an agreement between the South Asian neighbours in 2012 that allows visa-on-arrival for senior citizens and exempts senior citizens and children under 12 from police reporting,” she said.
“However, the implementation of the 2012 visa regime pact has stalled ever since and the online petition campaign seeks to build pressure on both countries to revive and extend the visa facility, she said.
“Young people in both the countries who generally have no nostalgia or any relatives living on the opposite side of the border have been actively coming together in India and Pakistan to foster peace through social media,” she explained. “However, any exchange between people on social media is veiled and there is a hesitancy in open and frank engagement.”
“A people-to-people contact is helpful for Indian and Pakistani citizens to help them to realise that they share a lot of commonalities in culture and language as they visit places like Lahore and New Delhi,” she said.
She said that the online petition campaign was one of the processes that is expected to lead to peace in South Asia. “The India-Pakistan border shares similarity with North-South Korean border and it is our governments that have to decide whether they want to keep it that way or whether they want to opt to make it more like the United States-Canada border with free people-to-people movement,” she said.
Pakistan slams Indian move to mark ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’ on Aug 14
While activists are fighting for people-to-people communication, there are those who continue to want a counter-narrative to peace.
In a statement on August 10, Pakistan’s Foreign Office strongly denounced of what appears to be a provocative move on part of the BJP government’s by observing August 14 as the ‘Partition Horrors Remembrance Day’ instead of recognizing it as the Independence Day of Pakistan.
“True to its characteristic revisionist agenda, the BJP-RSS led dispensation has again sought to hypocritically and one-sidedly invoke the tragic events and mass migration that occurred in the wake of Independence in 1947,” said the FO statement. “It is deplorable that the BJP government, as part of its divisive political agenda, is wantonly attempting to play with the sentiments of the people through distorted interpretations of history. If the Indian leaders genuinely care about the agony, suffering and pain, they must work to improve the conditions of the Muslims and other religious minorities in India,” said the Foreign Office.
The last seven decades have been replete with undeniable proof that India’s espousal of secularism was a sham, it said.
“The fact is that today’s India is an undeclared ‘Hindu Rashtra’ that has no place or tolerance for other religious minorities, especially Muslims who are faced with discrimination, persecution and political and socio-economic exclusion. The Government of India is advised to desist from politicizing the events related to Independence and instead sincerely honour the memories of all those who sacrificed for a better future for all,” the FO statement concluded.