In times of high peace and in bad times, the flow of people between India and Pakistan is a constantly moving wheel. More Pakistanis visit India than the other way around. Since 2007, when India-Pakistan relations were enjoying a golden period, the Indian High Commission in Islamabad has clocked a steady average of about one lakh visas annually.
In 2008-09, Pakistan was reeling under a wave of suicide bombings, and security was tightened in Islamabad’s Ramna 5, better known as Diplomatic Enclave, a gated cluster of foreign missions located opposite the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. As entry past the security became progressively tough, the Indian High Commission introduced, for the first time, a dropbox system for visa applications in all the main cities. A courier company would deliver the applications to the High Commission, and the passport back to the applicant — with or without the much anticipated visa stamp.
Applicants were aghast and distraught at the new impersonality, even though the previous system of queuing up and waiting outside the visa windows at the back of the chancery could not have been the most pleasant of visa experiences. Then, the long road to an Indian visa began from a bus stop 1 km from the Diplomatic Enclave, where a shuttle bus would pick up applicants and drop them at the back of the High Commission, where queues stretched out from the windows — separate for men, women, senior citizens, businessmen. All the while, a slim Pathan from the Frontier Constabulary, in his black salwar kameez and maroon cap, would keep order. The earlier a visa seeker caught the shuttle, the better the chances of handing in the application the same day.
A majority of Pakistani visa seekers to India have always been from Karachi, because it is in the cities of Sindh that most divided families settled. They make up the bulk of the regular travellers, visiting the “other side” of their families, usually in Uttar Pradesh or Bihar, for marriages, festivals, births and deaths. They would have typically travelled a day earlier and slept over at the shelter to catch the first shuttle.
Even before they got to the windows, a crew of Pakistani intelligence officials would mingle with them in the queue, and take down their passport particulars. They were the first gatekeepers in the system, and their questions were exactly what visa officers ask: why do you want to visit India, who are your relatives there, how long will you stay, what dates are you planning to travel. Everyone seemed to know who these men in plainclothes were, and were respectful. Rudeness was known to invite an angry slap across the face, or even worse.
When the windows closed at 1.30 pm, there were inevitably scores of disappointed people who swarmed around each other comparing notes, before reluctantly catching the shuttle out.
That daily drama behind the High Commission is now a thing of the past. No one has to travel to Islamabad any more. Applicants need to show up only when they are called for interviews, but still, there are those who turn up in person at the windows with their visa forms. Usually, they are those seeking medical visas.