A tale of two passports, the year 1979, and walking to India: Fawzia Naqvi
Guest Post by Fawzia Naqvi
For the first time Pakistan’s elected President has completed his full five-year term and has willingly stepped down to transfer power to another elected President, a herculean achievement for a country with chronic dictatoritus. The people of Pakistan must be congratulated for ensuring that democracy becomes an enduring grace and not just a good idea in some unforeseeable future. So while there is earsplitting cacophony of debate and disagreement on virtually all issues, there is near unanimous political consensus that the army should remain in the barracks and that there should be peace with India. The time is now. And Pakistanis have accomplished this in an era when Pakistan is suffering its worst hellish nightmare of daily bombings and killings by terrorists, and a loss of over 40,000 of its own citizens in the last decade or so. Pakistan teeters on the precipice of a very dark abyss, and has been inching ever closer to this dangerous edge for the last 34 years if not more. The first disturbing sign which I can remember was when the state institutionalized bigotry by officially declaring the Ahmadi community non-Muslim in 1974, opening up a hornets nest of discrimination, violence and unequal citizenship. A tragic disaster, and fatal capitulation to right wing elements, by Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto. No one is really safe in today’s Pakistan but clearly those less safe, those hunted and killed are the Shias, the Christians, the Ahmadis and the Hindus. Those doing the killings have given insidiousness to the meaning of “the land of the pure.”
I am remembering the year 1979 as I rummage through a stack of old and now expired Pakistani passports, shoved inside the drawer of my bedside table. At the bottom of the pile are two passports stapled together back to back. And there it is, my very first passport issued in Lahore on April 17, 1978 and renewed in Manila in 1983. The second passport is issued in New York in 1988. The 1978 passport has my very first Indian visa, dated April 19, 1979, the date written out by hand and signed by Mr. Rajinder Dutt, First Secretary Embassy of India, Islamabad. It is a three months single entry for a child with entry/exit at Attari, valid for a 7 days visit to New Delhi. There is also my very first “no objection” stamp from the Pakistanis, giving me permission for a single visit to India. The no objection is valid for one year. My very first stamp at Attari is dated April 25, 1979 when I walked to India and then a stamp at Wagha dated April 30th, 1979 when I walked back to Pakistan. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, Pakistan’s first and only elected Prime Minister had been hanged on April 4th, 1979. General Zia ul-Haq and the Pakistan military were firmly in control and preoccupied with the purification of Pakistan, rooting out any perceived impurities still lurking around. My two passports stapled back to back tell a tale about Pakistan and how we got to where we are in that country.
The cover of my passport says “Pakistan Passport” in both English and Urdu. Inside there is the passport number, my full name, the name of my father, my profession, the place of my birth, my height, visible distinguishing marks and finally my national status as Citizen of Pakistan. Let us flip over to the passport issued to me ten years later in 1988 in New York. The cover now says Islamic Republic of Pakistan in both English and Urdu and additionally it says Passport in Urdu, then “Jawaaz al-Safar” in Arabic and then Passport in English. The sudden appearance of Arabic on Pakistani passports also harkened to the large exodus of Pakistani labor to the Middle East, a majority being given employment in Saudi Arabia. Everything else inside my passport is the same except for one addition a religion line has been added.
In 1984 General Zia inserted into the constitution that all Pakistani parliamentarians must take an oath declaring Ahmadis Non-Muslim and all citizens must attest to that when applying for a passport. There are many brave Pakistanis today refusing to sign this odious form sanctioning hate and violence against Ahmadis. General Zia insured that Pakistan became an extraordinary anomaly in many disturbing and now devastating ways. The very act of proving citizenship now required committing oneself to egregious discrimination and violence against citizens of our own homeland. I recall a move by the All Pakistan Sipah-e-Sahaba (ASS)to encourage the newly labeled Majlis-e Shura, formerly called the Parliament, to propose that Shias wear markings which identified them as “Kafirs.” This deadly nexus between sectarian groups and some influential politicians dates far back to the era of General Zia Ul Haq, the self-anointed chief warrior of Islam. It was perhaps a step too far for most Pakistanis as well as neighbors such as Iran, which saved Pakistan’s Shias from this fate. So for at least three decades the Sipah- e-Sahaba and its cousins Lashkar-e-Jhangvi has settled instead for killing Shias wherever they can find them.
General Zia ul-Haq who overthrew an elected government in 1977 had by 1988 successfully completed his mission to irrevocably mangle Pakistan, distort and pervert its constitution and its history, thereby setting the country on a spiraling race to the bottom, before he was eviscerated, literally when his plane blew up on August 17, 1988.
But by then it seemed Pakistan had been cleaved away from its South Asian moorings, much like the plot of Jose Saramago’s brilliant novel The Stone Raft where the Iberian Peninsula suddenly breaks off from the European continent and begins to drift like a stone raft. By 1979 Pakistan too appeared to have broken from the Indian Subcontinent drifting out to sea and seeking to attach itself to Arabia, Saudi Arabia to be precise. Thus began the rewriting of history and the re-formulation of language where our children were now taught that the first Pakistani was Mohammed Bin Qasim and the correct way to say goodbye was “Allah Hafiz.” The Persian words “Khuda Hafiz,” it seems would displease our patrons the Saudis and perhaps reminds us of our real origins, our heritage and geographic orientations. Pakistan State Television now had news in Arabic for a population who spoke Urdu, Pashto, Sindhi, Punjabi, Baluchi or English. No female anchor could appear on state TV without her head covered. Business suits for men virtually disappeared in the public sector. We were transforming South Asia’s Muslims into the right kind of Muslims, ones who had no resemblance to our forefathers and foremothers. Pakistan was being duly Islamized according to the toxic machinations of General Zia ul-Haq, who was bolstered with the full force of the military-intelligence establishment and its willing civilian collaborators. He had many foreign friends too, topping the list were the Saudis, the Americans, the British and then the usual suspects who even today comprise those coalitions of the willing. The Shia-Sunni fire was lit as Pakistan joined the United States, Britain and Saudi Arabia in creating a Sunni bulwark around Iran while waging Jihad against the Soviets in Afghanistan. The blow back upon Pakistan of the Afghan jihad was nothing short of catastrophic.
So many things palpably began to change in everyday life that it is almost impossible to recount them. The way Pakistanis spoke, the way they looked, the way they worked, the way they worshipped. The normal, the banal became a thing of shame, something to hide. It was like that horror movie, The Alien, one never knew inside whom the alien was breeding and would eventually come tearing out.
How many Pakistanis today can tell us where the word “India and Hindu” originate from or where in fact the original land called “India” is actually located? Those born around 1979 have no concept of a Pakistan other than Zia ul Haq’s Pakistan. Those who were complicit with the General are still around ensuring no one successfully reminds Pakistanis that another Pakistan existed and can still exist. And more critically needs to exist if the country is to survive. The very words of the country’s founder were subverted for decades lest there be resistance to the purification project. Speculations are rife today that Jinnah’s August 11, 1947 speech which emphasized a tolerant, pluralistic and secular Pakistan was suppressed from the get go by the purists. I pray that India finds this speech in its radio archives, since Pakistan claims the audio is lost forever, and broadcasts it for all of Pakistan to hear. There are still those alive who remember hearing the speech as it was being delivered by Jinnah, but they are now fewer and fewer and soon there will be no living memory of Jinnah’s vision for what Pakistan was meant to be.
An entire generation seems confused about who they are as a people. Pakistan is and always was an integral part of the Indian Subcontinent or South Asia and never part of the Middle East construct. I recall the 1974 Islamic Summit hosted by Bhutto in Lahore. We could sing the catchy theme song prepared so proudly for the summit and point out which leader stayed where. But in hindsight, perhaps a broken Pakistan sought friends and shared religion seemed a solace, as well as promises of cheap oil in an era when the oil embargo against the West forced energy prices to skyrocket. It turned out to be a very lethal bargain. One could glibly say that in 1971 India broke it and the Saudis bought it.
But in my opinion therein lie the great tragedy and the enormous damage which has plagued Pakistan. For Sheher-e-Lahore, the beloved city is just 18 miles from the Indian border and not 18 miles from Riyadh or Jeddah.
For decades Pakistanis have travelled easily to and from the Middle East, imbibing the ways, the physical appearances and religiosity of the Gulf States, but have found it virtually impossible to go just eighteen miles across to India where we naturally look like each other, often have blood relatives, speak the same languages, eat the same food, recite the same poetry, listen to the same music and understand each other’s traditions and reference points. Almost nothing is lost in translation, whether good or bad. It is when you have walked across that border, literally walked to India that you at once feel the orientation and the incredible disorientation which loss engenders.
The year 1979 was the year Pakistan began to be force fed poison in huge quantities, and since then has been spawning some extremely vile creatures, which have morphed and re-morphed into monsters devouring their own creators. 1979 was also the year I walked to India and for the first time heard how wretched Pakistanis were for having hanged our Prime Minister and having stood by helplessly as he went to the gallows. India had recently faced its own tumult and near dictatorial era of The Emergency imposed by Prime Minister Indira Gandhi. Perhaps that is why those I had met were extra sensitized and alert to undemocratic excesses across the border. “How could you do that? What kind of people are you?” I heard over and over again. I was the, going on 16. And it is probably my clearest memory of that trip, that and the fact that soldiers weren’t pointing guns in my face everywhere I went, as was the case in Pakistan since the 1977 coup.
I went back to Delhi in December 2011 after 32 years. Why it took me so long to get back is a matter entirely inexplicable by visa difficulties alone because I had been traveling to India for work since 2006. Perhaps remembering was too hard. Perhaps I knew that India too had dramatically altered, and not entirely for the better. However having the pleasure of meeting several friends who had studied at JNU I found myself telling the tale over and over, “in 1979 when I came to India the first time I stayed at JNU…” and thus began the telling of the story of how and why I had walked to India the first time three decades ago.
I had come to Delhi to dance, having been trained in the classical Kathak form by the famous Professor Husain Saga in Lahore. I would come bounding off the soccer field, shedding my cleats and socks and quickly buckling on my ankle bells while the tablawalla warmed up. The good professor would inevitably show displeasure at my uncultured appearance as I stood ready to dance in my soccer uniform, t-shirt and shorts with ankle bells now strapped on. I made up for it during my performances for which special clothes had been stitched. To this day my ankle bells and the elaborate outfit stay wrapped up and packed away in our apartment in Karachi.
I was part of a group of students from the Lahore American School visiting the Delhi American School where I would perform in the annual Cultural Convention of American Schools in the region. Islamabad, Lahore, Karachi, Kabul, Delhi and Tehran. In April 1978 the Kabul American School was shut down (My sister and I were in Kabul in April 78’ for the annual convention when the coup d’ etat overthrew the Monarchy, we were lucky to have gotten out alive) and by April 1979 the Tehran American School too was gone, and I never again saw my fellow soccer player an Iranian center forward for the Tehran boys team. I still have a faded photo of him getting ready to strike at the opposing goal on the soccer field at Atchison College Lahore where our games were being played, for what turned out to be the last time Kabul and Tehran American Schools were to participate.
Tumultuous changes were rocking the region and worse were still to come. Zbignew Brzezinski’s “Crescent of Crisis” was aflame. I still remember so well staring at the January 15, 1979 cover of Time Magazine showing Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan with the Russian bear dramatically looming upon the region. Americans would be taken hostage in Iran in November that year. All of these geo-political anxieties of the United States played so well in to General Zia’s game plan of taking a wrecking ball through Pakistani society and altering it irrevocably.
Much to the horror of my uncle, a military officer and former prisoner of war in India, my parents allowed me to go to Delhi. In charge of affairs at the Wagha border, it was my uncle cutting a dashing figure in his military uniform, who ushered my safe passage through the gates of Pakistan where he let go of my hand as I walked onward with my classmates across the “no man’s land” a strip of road which exists between the closed gates of Pakistan and the closed gates of India. The Pakistan Rangers opened the gates from the Pakistan side to let us through, and then we heard the loud clanging as they shut the gates behind us. The metal gates of India remained shut until we reached them and that is when the Indian Border Security Forces opened the gates to let us in and then like the Pakistanis clanged them shut behind us. It is a symbolic gesture to this day telling the other side, our gates are firmly slammed shut against you. After experiencing the walk between the two nations, I fully understood why we use the phrase “no man’s land,” when explaining uncertainty, something unclaimed, unknown, lost in the ether. It is a genuinely disconcerting experience at the young age I was then. And I can only imagine the emotions and the distress my uncle felt watching me walk toward and disappear into the “enemy” country which had captured and imprisoned him for 3 years after the fall of Dhaka in December 1971, and held him captive in several POW camps mostly in Bihar. It had only been 5 years since he had returned from captivity. And it is only decades later that I understand, I must’ve caused him great anguish and fear that I may not return.
In reality the no man’s land between the gates of Pakistan and the gates of India is a fairly short strip of asphalt. However in my memory and in my mind’seye it is a very long, in fact elongated far distance to traverse. As the years have passed, it has literally taken on a whole new dimension in my imagination. And I keep promising myself that on my next visit to either country I shall walk across that no man’s land again. In which direction? I do not yet know.
We used to go to the Wagha border check post for outings with my uncle. We would go for the evening flag lowering ceremony and tea. It was always a somber and dignified event and not the insanity and grotesque spectacle on display today. Sometimes we would go right up to the gate, where on the ground was a broad stripe painted in white marking the end of Pakistan territory. We would gawk at the Indian border guards and shyly wave to them as they stiffly went through their paces. Occasionally we would even see Indian citizens gaping back at us with equal curiosity. I imagine we all had dumb and somewhat bewildered looking smiles on our faces gazing at the enemy as one might at animals in a zoo. Sarees on that side, Shalwar Kameez this side. But it was the unusual sound of Mandir bells that fascinated me so much, the tun, tun, tun I heard only at the border, the sound carrying on the wind from India to Pakistan.
It was always a beautiful drive through lush green foliage and farmland, past the Bata factory in Batapur, over the famous BRB canal which my uncle’s youngest brother had died defending successfully in 1965, as the Indian army tried to advance on Lahore, thus creating the myth or rumor of India’s military commander promising to drink “chota pegs” by evening at the Lahore Gymkhana. Iftikar road in Lahore is named after my uncle’s brother. And I wonder how many people in Lahore today even know who he was and what he did to have this major road named after him?
It is a December dawn in Delhi when I drawback the thick curtains of my hotel room in Saket. I am simply mesmerized with the vision looming in the lifting mist. It is the Qutb Minar. Three decades later I am once again seeing this most spectacular monument, I believe it was the only historical site I was able to see in 1979. And upon every return to Delhi, I am now given a room with this view, the glorious Qutb Minar is always framed in my window, and perhaps in my mind’s eye when I think of Delhi. The details of being here three decades ago are hazy and faded, but I am having flashbacks and trying to recall moments I haven’t thought of in so many years.
The flight from Amritsar to Delhi is somewhat of a blur except that a very young Sanjay Dutt was on our flight and when the Air India hostesses found out we were Pakistani children we were fawned over as minor celebrities ourselves. They were slim and pretty and wore sarees, and insisted we eat and drink because as their guests we must do so. I remember a lot of laughter and giggling.
I was met at the Delhi American School by my father’s college friends who were professors at JNU. I was to stay with them at their home on the JNU campus.
I went back to JNU for the first time in March 2013 and after my meeting I asked our host if she could tell me which direction the late Professor’s house used to be. My memories of JNU are again so faded. Perhaps it was uniquely the JNU slice of Delhi which I was exposed to, but my impression of Indians was that they valued intellect above all and that they lived a far simpler lifestyle than what we were accustomed to in Pakistan. I found no vestiges of flashiness or flaunting of wealth. 2013 reveals a very different Delhi, a place I cannot reconcile to the city and people I visited in 1979. I have stopped trying to do so and have tried to re-program my thinking to believe it is indeed two different places. Driving through the gates of JNU this March I felt completely disoriented and in doubt as to whether I had ever been to JNU before. But I do remember the multi-storied house, I remember climbing the stairs to the rooftop and gazing out over the campus and far beyond. It was so much like Lahore in its grandeur and elegance and yet so different. It was also the very first time I had seen Hindu deities being carried during a religious procession in Chandni Chowk. I had never before seen so much humanity in narrow spaces and it overwhelmed me. And I remember emotions of disquiet, strangeness and trepidation of being amongst strangers. I felt alone as a Pakistani adolescent amongst Indians who I found peculiar, foreign and yet so familiar.
And that dance performance, my reason to go to Delhi. All I can remember was being approached by a lady afterward who and told me that I must keep dancing because I had the talent. It was a high complement in India, the land where classical Kathak was born. But sadly that was not to be, we left Pakistan for the Philippines in 1980 and I stopped lessons as a result.
It was a particularly difficult time for me to be in India. General Zia had just hanged our only elected Prime Minister on concocted evidence. Rumors were rife that the Prime Minister had been tortured, that he had become a skeletal figure in jail and was physically dragged to the gallows, his final words becoming the stuff of myth and enormous grief for his family and supporters. His young daughter, Benazir and wife Nusrat were tormented and held captive in solitary confinement. The Pakistani people were relentlessly subjected to news censorship, but even then we knew what was happening and how it was happening. BBC Urdu service was still available and tuned into by millions of households, as was the reporting of BBC radio’s South Asia correspondent Mark Tully. There were many other political prisoners in jail being subjected to torture and public floggings. Macabre and grotesque photos of their flogging would appear in the state controlled press sowing fear in the public. Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was my hero and I had arrived in India shell shocked and traumatized by what had been done to him and to us as people just weeks before. By then I was keenly aware of who in the world tried to help us and who had been accomplice to General Zia’s terrible crime. I was beginning my political awakening and was now being bombarded by horrified Indians telling me in no uncertain terms that we the people of Pakistan were barbarians.
When asked by my hosts what I wanted to do while in Delhi, I surprised them by saying that I wanted only to purchase one thing, it was Bhutto’s banned book “If I Am Assassinated,” published in India by Vikas Publishing House. The manuscript was smuggled out of Rawalpindi Central jail where Bhutto had secretly handwritten it. More priceless than gold, this book still sits on my bookshelf in New York. Its price is listed on the inside flap as Rps. 35. It was likely the most significant act of political defiance I committed at that age, purchasing several copies of the banned book plus several issues of news magazines which had cover stories of Bhutto’s hanging and the first interview of Tara Masih his hangman.
As the date of my departure approached, I and my host’s son began the task of concealing the books and the magazines inside the luggage I was to walk back in to Pakistan with. Many years later he told me in New York that for him that was the most memorable part of my visit. He had never before witnessed the fear of being in possession of written material. There were serious consequences to being caught with Bhutto’s banned book; especially returning from India but I was determined. We painstakingly covered the books in brown paper which children in South Asia use to cover text books. And indeed we wrote on the brown paper covers to make them look like my school books. The magazines we rolled up and stuffed inside the legs of my pants
On April 30, 1979 I walked back to Pakistan, shaking a little at the knees while passing through the gates of India, across the no man’s land, entering through the gates of Pakistan in possession of the most treacherous contraband masquerading as my school books. My uncle was awaiting my return as I stepped in to Pakistan. I am still not sure if to this day he knows what I carried back with me from India.
Fawzia Naqvi lives and works in New York City .