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Diplomatic chill can’t freeze ties

This winter, diplomatic ties between India and Pakistan have iced up. But ordinary people are still taking the bus, train and flight across — for marriages, to meet relatives or for medical reasons. A report by Zia Haq.

india Updated: Dec 18, 2008 00:49 IST
Zia Haq

This winter, diplomatic ties between India and Pakistan have iced up. Business meets have been ditched and official-level talks stand suspended. But there's no stopping ordinary Indians and Pakistanis from cross-border travel -- some because of blood ties; others because of pressing emergencies.

Ahmer Afzal Khan, managing director of Karachi’s Aftab Technologies Pvt Ltd, can’t wait to take a flight to India. The freeze in ties seems to be the last thing on his mind.

“My father-in-law had a paralytic stroke. We want a visa to Bangalore immediately,” Khan told HT from Karachi, the same Pakistani port city from where 10 attackers are said to have sailed into Mumbai last month.

In Bangalore’s Narayana Hrudayalaya Hospitals, doctors are busy preparing diagnostic summaries from medical reports e-mailed by Khan to help save time. “We have couriered a physical copy of our hospital’s readiness to treat him,” Vasuki, the hospital’s general manager, said.

Delhi’s Escorts Heart Institute has been operating two Pakistani patients a week, with a steady stream of ongoing bookings, its chairman Dr Ashok Seth said. “The doctor-patient relationship is a human one and Pakistani citizens come to us with hope and we welcome them.”

On the hospital’s fourth floor, 25-year-old Syed Adil Masood from Lahore cradles his two-month-old son Abdullah. “Indian doctors have given my son a second chance at life. This is my country too,” he said.

Vishnu Prakash, the spokesperson for India’s external affairs ministry, denied any change in visa procedures after the Mumbai attacks. This explains why people-to-people contact is largely intact.

As dusk falls in Delhi’s Ambedkar bus terminus, a luxury white bus emblazoned with the logo of Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation breezes in with passengers from Pakistan.

“My maternal aunt is on her death bed in Jallandhar. She raised me after my mother died. I want to see her before she’s gone,” said Keramat Khan, a Rawalpindi resident.

The outbound bus from New Delhi to Lahore, run by the state-owned Delhi Transport Corporation (DTC), shuttles back and forth between the historic cities six days a week with an adult ticket price of Rs 1500.

“My hometown before marriage was Lahore. I urgently need two tickets for my niece’s wedding,” says Amina Ahmed, a woman from Delhi’s Dilshad Garden. Her daughter Sania Ahmed is excited to be going to Lahore, where she’ll be with her first cousins -- for the very first time.

The bus will race through lush Punjab fields before entering what is now a potentially hostile terrain on the Pakistani side.

At 6 am on Monday, the bus left packed. “Our buses are running full,” said V.K. Sehgal, DTC’s chief general manager said.

The bi-weekly trans-border train, Samjhauta Express, on Tuesday brought in 400 passengers, a “fairly typical passenger count”, according to chief public relations officer of Northern Railways, Rajeev Saxena. Together, more than a 1,000 ordinary Pakistanis have been trooping into Delhi on private visits, going by passenger occupancy on trains, buses and planes.

“The sentiment is, however, not inclined for business meets,” said BS Rawat, secretary general of Associated Chamber of Commerce and Industry (Assocham). It was supposed to host a delegation from Karachi, now deferred.

An official from Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (Ficci)’s Pakistan desk said an executive meeting of the SAARC chamber to be held in Karachi by this month-end too stood postponed. “The Indian delegation will not go,” he said, requesting anonymity.