MUMBAI, India — Every time Tasleem, who lives in Mumbai, makes a call on her mobile to her mother in Karachi she receives a text message from her service provider urging her to be on alert. She should “exercise caution” when calling someone in Pakistan, the message tells her, as the information she shares “can be misused.”
“It doesn’t happen when I call London,” Tasleem said with a laugh.
The foreign ministers of India and Pakistan held talks earlier this month aimed at restoring relations, still floundering after the November 2008 attacks in Mumbai by Pakistani gunmen. The media has focused on the political jostling between the two countries, addressing sweeping issues related to Kashmir, terrorism and the sharing of water resources.
What often gets overlooked is how the tensions between the countries affect ordinary people every day.
With the hostilities come tough security measures and visa restrictions that deeply impact people like Tasleem, who have family members living on both sides of the border. Tasleem and her family members asked that their real names not be used in this article.
The tensions also affect tourists, students, professionals, journalists and anyone of Indian or Pakistani origin trying to travel between the two countries.
Tasleem’s grandfather was a prominent man living in South Bombay when British India was divided into India and Pakistan in 1947. Like millions of other Muslims, he left his home and life behind, packed up and moved his family, including Tasleem’s mother who was 2 years old, to Pakistan. During the aftermath of the partition, as many as 12 million Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs crossed the border in the hopes of finding safety in a nation with more of their religious group.
Tasleem’s mother, Noor, grew up in Karachi but always considered herself Indian. As a young woman, she got engaged to Tasleem’s father, Aroon, a Muslim whose family had stayed in India. From as early as their wedding, the conflict between the countries caused problems for the family.
“From day one it has been difficult,” Noor said by phone from Karachi.
Aroon, who was an Indian national living in Europe, could not get a visa to attend their wedding in Karachi. It was 1971, the year India and Pakistan fought one of their three wars. The family had no choice, and the wedding took place without the groom’s presence.
“I got married all on my own,” Noor said. “My parents were there, but the bridegroom wasn’t there.”
Noor and Aroon lived in Europe, where they had Tasleem. Because Tasleem had Indian citizenship, Noor couldn’t bring her to Karachi. For years, Noor’s family would visit Europe, but Tasleem missed many family get-togethers in Pakistan.
After Aroon passed away, Noor remarried and returned to Karachi. As an adult, Tasleem moved to Mumbai and now lives a short flight away from her mother and relatives in Karachi. And yet, the political tensions make it feel to her like they’re a world away.
Tasleem has not visited her family in Pakistan in five years because she fears that having a Pakistani visa in her passport would cause problems when she returns to India or visits other countries.
Noor, with great difficulty, visits Mumbai. But the rest of the family in Karachi has not tried to visit India in the past 15 to 20 years because they do not want to deal with the hassle of getting a visa.
“My cousin in Karachi, she loves Bombay,” Tasleem said, “and she just can’t come here.”
Tasleem’s American cousin tried to get an Indian visa to attend a family member’s wedding, but the embassy — after seeing a Pakistani visa in her passport and asking repeated questions — denied her the visa.
In Mumbai, Tasleem only tells close friends that her mother lives in Pakistan for fear that Indians, including Indian Muslims, might think she’s Pakistani and have a problem with her.
After decades of mistrust, India and Pakistan have more severe restrictions on nationals of the other country. If an American or European gets a visa to visit India, he can go almost anywhere in the country. If a Pakistani wants to visit, he must first specify which cities will be part of the itinerary. He gets a visa only for those cites. Once he arrives, he must go to the special branch of the city’s police office and register his presence within 24 hours. He must also alert the police before departing from the city. The same thing happens when Indians visit Pakistan.
“It’s an extremely restrictive kind of visa,” said Javed Anand of Muslims for Secular Democracy. He said that journalists and other people with influence can often skirt around the requirements, but the average person has tremendous difficulty. When Anand visited Karachi to attend a conference two years ago, he had to make two trips to the police during his three days in the city.
The restrictions are a preventive measure that both countries adopt and reflect the status of relations between India and Pakistan, according to Vikram Sood, the former head of India’s external intelligence service, the Research and Analysis Wing.
“No single action can prevent a terrorist attack,” he wrote in an email. “But a restriction does help control flow of visitors.” Once the talks succeed, he wrote, there would hopefully be a lessening of restrictions and pressures on families.
Lessening the visa restrictions by both countries and enabling more people to meet and learn from each other would be an important step towards improving relations between India and Pakistan, said Smruti S Pattanaik, a research fellow with the New Delhi-based think tank Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses.
“If the two countries want to have peace, I think people-to-people contact is a must,” she said.
Visa restrictions were discussed at the recent talks, according to reports. However, Sarfaraz Arzu, an Urdu editor and media personality in Mumbai, said he did not think the talks would alleviate the tensions or make it easier for those with loved ones on both sides of the border. Too many groups and interests benefit from the instability and tension, he said. Both sides “would like things to smolder and continue the same way they are,” he said. “So you keep the pot boiling.”
Anand said the difficulties that families like Tasleem’s face are a result not of hostilities between Indians and Pakistanis but because of the nations’ political situation.
“In India the problem is not between the average Muslim and Hindu, the problem is politics,” he said. “Similarly between India and Pakistan, it’s more to do with the establishment on both sides.”
For Tasleem, the tensions may be regional and even global in nature, but they hit directly home.
“I’m dreading the day that the phone rings and something happened to my mom,” Tasleem said. “I don’t have a visa to go on the next plane.”