This was my third visit to Pakistan and second within a year. Crossing the Radcliffe Line at Attari-Wagah is always a momentous occasion and even more so when there were clamours within the country threatening to send some people off to Pakistan for their dissent. Just one step and you’re in Islamic Republic of Pakistan leaving behind the Sovereign Socialist Secular Democratic Republic of India. One small step but a giant leap in ideology and way of life. Surreal or what?
This time I took copious photographs as I stepped across the line keeping in view the “go to Pakistan chant”. The Pakistan High Commission in New Delhi had handed me a ten-day visa in record time of a few hours and with a lot of courtesy, but the surliness of Pakistani immigration in Wagah was a bit perplexing. The lady in Hijaab behind the immigration counter chose to ignore my Indian passport as she cleared Pakistanis behind me one by one till there were none left. In the 48 hours that I spent in Pakistan, it became clear to me that the reason for the grumpy behaviour lay in Indian political developments. But more of that later.
The internal security situation in Pakistan coupled with the suicide bomb attack at Wagah about a year back, just after the retreat ceremony, has resulted in an unprecedented security clampdown. Unlike in India, where a SUV broke several barriers and smashed into the Indian and Pakistani gates at the Zero Line a few weeks back, there is little chance of this happening on the Pakistani side. Apart from the numerous barricades put up on the road, private vehicles are just not allowed till the immigration and customs complex. Except for the VVIPs, of course, a sub-continent phenomenon.
A toy train, which many travelers find ridiculous, chugs from the Wagah complex to a makeshift parking, which is a few hundred metres down the road to Lahore, and forms part of a primary school run by the Pakistan Rangers. All vehicles arriving to pick-up visitors must be identified by giving the vehicle number and name of the driver to the Ranger on duty at the parking, who then informs another checkpost a few hundred metres down the road. Only after a through check and verification is the vehicle allowed to proceed to the parking.
Not having a Pakistani mobile phone SIM card with me, a gentleman returning from Ludhiana to Lahore, after attending a wedding, urged me to use his phone to get in touch with the driver coming to pick me up. Thanks to his help, I was soon on the road to Lahore, by-passing the city in order to save time and head straight to Nankana Sahib, a small town some two hours driving time away from Lahore and the birthplace of the first Sikh Guru, Guru Nanak Dev.
The day I crossed into Pakistan was the birth anniversary of the Guru, and one of the best days to see the atmosphere of festivity in Nankana Sahib. So, assuring my gentle and erudite host with a major Chandigarh connection (his sasural), Babar Khan, of meeting him later that evening, I asked the driver, Rafaqat, who was also with me during my previous visit, to speed onwards to the motorway from the Lahore Ring Road.
But Rafaqat had something on his mind. Bihar.
“Sir aapke vo politician bade achhe hain”
Which one I, asked him.
‘Vo jo do log Bihar mein jeete hain”
Nitish Kumar,? I asked.
“Nahi, Nahi vo chhote choote baalon wale, bahut hasaate hain”
Lalu Yadav, I told him.
“Haan, haan vahi. Unko TV pe bahot dikhaate the yahan”
Lalu. The Pak TV Star. Surreal or what?
And then Rafaqat tuned into the Indian FM channels beamed from Amritsar and which are quite popular in Lahore. Kishore Kumar’s “Jab Chaha yaara tumne, aankhon se maara tumne,’ played as the car sped from Wagah through Batapore and entered outskirts of Lahore. Batapore, where leading elements of Indian Army reached 50 years back in 1965 war before falling back due to lack of back-up.
The Lahore Ring Road is much like the Delhi Ring Road, only much wider and with lesser traffic. It merges into the Lahore-Islamabad motorway which is even bigger and better. The drive to Nankana Sahib was pretty smooth through the town of Sheikhupura and the only roadblock we hit was on the outskirts of the town which was in a state of lockdown due to the rush of Indian devotees. Massive police presence could be seen and street after street was cordoned off with cement road blocks and razor wires to prevent access to the Gurdwara.
Just as I reached the Gurdwara, there was some commotion and all entry was stopped for nearly an hour. I tried to request the Assistant Sub-Inspector to let me through saying I had just come from India but to no avail. In an accent, which was close to the one we hear in Amritsar and Gurdaspur, he politely asked me in Punjabi to move backwards and wait for some time. Might as well explore the streets, I said to myself as I sauntered down the road. But all shops were closed and sealed. Locals were missing but for a few odd ones on the road. Most were standing on rooftops and looking down at the Indians who had taken over the streets.
The visit to the Gurdwara, thronging with Indian Sikh devotees and Pakistani Sindhi Hindus and a smattering of Sikhs, was completed in a couple of hours. Posters of Bhindranwale were visible in large numbers. But mostly ignored. And then I proceeded to look for the local police station to report my arrival and get a stamp on the Visa Information Form which every Indian and Pakistani must carry along with passport while visiting the other country.
The Thana ‘munshi’, as we say in Punjabi about the ‘havaldar’ in charge of the clerical work in a police station, was a bit reluctant to do the needful asking me to get it done in Lahore. But he gave in after I insisted. And while he was at it, I struck a conversation with other cops in the room over why there was no electricity.
Cuts for 18 hours are quite common, I was informed by a cop in riot gear smoking a cigarette after a gruelling day at work. Given the ban on smoking in public places in India, it is a bit interesting to see people smoke in public in Pakistan. I commiserated with him on the power situation and informed him that we were power surplus in the other Punjab (as claimed by Sukhbir Badal) to which he said that he knew that the situation was certainly better in East Punjab. A quick round of handshakes, turning down offer of a cup of tea and Rafaqat and I were off to Lahore.
“What is your Prime Minister doing,” was the question fired at me in my hosts Babar Khan’s tastefully done drawing room in his sprawling house on Raiwaind Road in Lahore.
My reply that he was perhaps travelling abroad at the time, was not the answer expected of me. And then the reason for the surliness of the immigration lady dawned. A lot of Pakistanis are very unhappy over the happenings in India. Dadri and now the Aamir Khan episode seems to have left them very annoyed. I was given a lecture on how this was harming India’s image and how everyone was very hopeful of some good coming out of Narendra Modi’s election as the PM but now all that goodwill was being frittered away. Tipu Sultan too took some of our time as we finally tucked in to kebabs and a surprisingly well made yellow dal.
More on similar lines was in offing the next morning as I met Babar Khan’s business partner and veteran Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician, Imran Khan’s cousin, Hafeezullah Khan Niazi. He is also married to Imran’s sister and thus a double relative. Now I have met Niazi sahib on an earlier visit and am aware of his Jamiat-e-Islami affiliations, but this time the right-leaning gentleman was in a more strident mood. Niazi does not get along with Imran Khan for some personal reasons and therefore while he was in full flow, he compared Narendra Modi to Imran Khan. While I could not figure out the reason for this, it was perhaps the ultimate deriding comparison which he could think of. Calling Niazi saheb an Indian hater would be too extreme, but suffice it to say that he is not very fond of our country.
To be fair to him, Niazi saheb was honest with his outpourings of sympathy with Aamir Khan (he also mentioned Shabana Azmi but I did not ask him the reason for clubbing her with Aamir for the sake of preventing another diatribe) and also because I had to drive 160 km away to Kartarpur near Narowal.
To get to Narowal, Rafaqat took the route which went through Muridke. Yes, the same Muridke which is home to the Hafeez Saeed, the Jammat-Ud-Dawaa chief who pours venom on India and is known to be mastermind of several terror attacks in India. The town looked pretty average and no different from other Pakistani towns I had seen on the road and soon enough we were off the main highway and on the road to Narowal. Yes Narowal, from where terrorists were suspected to have come to attack the Indian Police station in Dinanagar in Gurdaspur. It is quite close to the Indian border and the road to it almost runs parallel to the Indian border.
Roughly three hours later, passing through Punjab countryside, replete with paddy stubble burning (the kind which is burnt in Indian Punjab too and contributes to smog in New Delhi), typical small towns with sweet shops selling jalebis and samosas, I crossed Narowal and reached Gurdwara Kartarpur Sahib. Narowal turned out to be a bigger town than I had imagined. Ever since it was made into a full fledged district, it seems to have prospered despite its proximity to the Indian border.
Kartarpur Sahib is barely 3 km from the Indian border town of Dera Baba Nanak. The Gurdwara can be seen from the Indian side and commands great veneration for Indian pilgrims as it is the last resting place of Guru Nank Dev.
The gates of the Gurdwara were closed and I could see massive police presence inside the sprawling complex. ‘Hindu,” asked the Pakistani policeman as he poked his head inside the car from the driver’s side. “Indian”, I replied as he let me inside the gates and soon there was a flurry of activity. Men in plain clothes appeared and cops with registers in hand appeared out of nowhere. “Indian, Indian” was the refrain and they looked at me wondering what was a solitary Indian doing there.
As my particulars were noted down, I was questioned about the hotel I was staying in. My reply that I was staying with a friend was even more surprising for the spooks in plainclothes as they jotted down in feverish excitement. My home address of Mohali made one of them speak out, “cricket stadium”. I nodded with a smile and he seemed pleased at his GK.
A quick round of the Gurdwara and I came out to be accosted by two Inspectors of Pakistan Punjab Police who seemed to have arrived soon after I reached. Offered a cup of Kahwa, which I declined, the cops wanted to give me an unsolicited escort to Lahore. I declined that too saying that I had to first go to the nearest police station to report my arrival and departure. “That would be Nurkot, some 10-12 kms away,” the Inspector said allowing me to proceed to Lahore on my own.
And then came, “Apke Prime Minister kya kar rahe hain”. I asked him what did he think Modi was doing, but got a smile in return. ‘Bihar mein haarne ke baad mizaaj badla nahin unka,” he asked me. Quite impressed that this Pakistani cop in a corner of Pakistani Punjab was keeping tab on Bihar polls, I told him that the PM was in as fine mettle as ever. He smiled again. And I got into the car and sped off towards Shakargarh to report to the police station.
Shakargarh, of course, is quite a famous name in Indian military annals. The battles which have been fought in its vicinity in the 1965 and 1971 wars are part of military folklore. And as I crossed a river, the name Basantar, flashed by on an irrigation department board on its banks. And did I get goosebumps or what. Who has not heard of Battle of Basantar or the Battle honour Basantar for many a Indian Army regiments. To be in its vicinity, gave a strange feeling to say the least. And no wonder, the close proximity to Indian border makes the surroundings around the road replete with pill boxes and bunkers.
And as the milestones brought Shakargarh closer and I started wondering if I was on the right road, Nurkot came into view with its brand new police station. The staff had just polished off a plate of pakoras as was evident by the remains on the table. As my identity was revealed, the table was cleared off and I was swarmed by curious policemen who said no Indian had ever come there to report.
I helpfully told them the procedure and asked them to get their foreigners’ register, if they had one. Well they did have it and it was brought out and dusted while I was offered tea. I declined, but had they offered me pakoras I might have relented. And as the ‘munshi’ made his entry a cop got into conversation with me.
“Where are you from”?
Chandigarh, I said but it drew a blank look. I offered Mohali in the hope of cricket stadium recognition. Again blank. I changed tack. It is near Patiala, I said and Patiala he had heard of.
“How big is Patiala”?
Quite big, I replied.
“Is it bigger than Lahore”?
No, I said, it is not bigger than Lahore
‘Which city in your Punjab is bigger than Lahore”?
None is as big as Lahore, I replied.
“Not even Delhi”?
Delhi is not in Punjab and is virtually another state, I said.
“What about ‘Kalkatta’ (Punjabi version of Kolkata)?
Kalkatta is unfortunately not in Punjab but in West Bengal, I gently broke the news to him. He was quite surprised.
My Visa Information Form had been stamped by then and so I took leave of the curious cop. Rafaqat, who had been by my side in the police station could not stop laughing.
And as we began the long drive back to Lahore, I asked Rafaqat to tune into 92.7 Big FM. And so on the Shakagarh-Narowal road, we drove into the sunset with a Vidya Balan jingle extolling virtues of a shauchalaya in every house.
Surreal or what?