Cross-border brides feel the heat of Indo-Pak tension

Once held as a tradition that nurtured ties, marriages between Indians and Pakistanis are now throwing up many challenges and fears for families.

india Updated: Jul 14, 2017 10:55 IST
Manraj Grewal Sharma
Manraj Grewal Sharma
Hindustan Times, Malerkotla/Qadian
Pakistani brides,India-Pakistan,India-Pakistan border tension
Pakistani bride Tahira Ahmad with her husband, Chaudhary Maqbool Ahmad, and their children at Qadian in Punjab.(Keshav Singh/HT photo)

Laughter and loud talk ring through the streets of Punjab’s Malerkotla. It is Eid, but what has made the festival more special in this Muslim-majority town is the visit of women who have been married to Pakistanis, especially amid the strained ties between the two countries.

It is a joy seeped in relief. For many, getting a visa to India is not easy, and they are lucky enough to have managed it.

A princely state till 1947, Malerkotla was an oasis of peace during the Partition. Later, it was commonplace for locals to marry their daughters off to relatives in Pakistan and vice versa.

“It was a way to nurture family ties,” says Razia Bano, who married a distant relative in Pakistan in 1981.

But deteriorating bilateral relations has shaken the tradition. “Nowadays, we prefer a local match,” says Mohd Owais, a businessman and philanthropist.

The daughters agree. Rafiya Tanbeer, who has been married to a Pakistani for 30 years, dreads any whispers about war.

“I fear they will seal the border and I won’t be able to meet my ailing mother again,” says Tanbeer, her kohl-rimmed eyes watering up.

The strict visa regime is another perennial pain. Gulfareen Begum, who is home after 25 years, says she couldn’t even come when her father died. “They kept refusing me a visa due to an anomaly in my papers. Finally, I changed my place of birth and got a fresh passport.”

Her brother Akbar Khan, who wasn’t born when she was married, is glad to finally meet her. “We had given up hope.”

Mohd Irshad Rana, who is visiting his wife Razia Bano’s family, wishes the visa regime was more reasonable. “My wife has over a hundred relatives here but we get visa for only a month, and that too only for Malerkotla. We can’t step out of this town,” says Rana, editor of Muhafiz-e-Muashra, a magazine published from Mandi Bahouddin in Pakistan.

The popular way to extend the visa is to get a medical certificate. “But what if I have no ailment?” fumes Razia Bano.

Who are Ahmadis?
The quiet town of Qadian in the border district of Punjab’s Gurdaspur is the international headquarters of the Ahmadiyya community.
Their population in India is around 1,00,000 while around the world their numbers touch 170 mn
IN QADIAN, thousands of Ahmadis from 35 countries congregate for a three-day annual convention
SECT FOUNDER Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad was born and lies buried in Gurdaspur
THE CONSTITUTION in Pakistan does not recognise Ahmadis as Muslims, forcing many to marry their daughters off to men in India.
2011 CENSUS saw the sect’s inclusion in India. Later, several high court rulings held them as Muslims.
In earlier Census reports, only Sunnis, Shias, Bohras and Agakhanis were identified as sects of Islam. Islamic seminaries in India, like the Darul Uloom Deoband, also don’t recognise the members as Muslims.

It’s not easy for Pakistani brides in Malerkotla, either. Shehnaaz Begum, married to an Indian for 25 years, breaks into tears recounting her failed attempt to get a visa to attend her only brother’s funeral last week. “I visited Pakistan four years ago. Since then they have been denying me a visa,” she says, wiping a tear, and adding firmly, “I will marry my three children here. What’s the point of having a family (in the neighbouring country) if you can’t be with them when they need you the most?”

Locals also complain of police harassment when there is tension at the border. “Last year, when there was talk of war, CID officials started visiting families with guests from across the border. One of my guests from Pakistan was so frazzled that he refused to step out of home during his stay,” says Maqsooda Bibi, whose daughter Shukria is married to a Pakistani.

For a few, however, the going has been smooth. Syeda Kowser Mobin from Sheikhpura near Lahore says she never had any trouble with the authorities since her marriage to a Malerkotla man in 1992.

“At times I visit Pakistan every six months. Even my relatives never encountered any challenges,” smiles Mobin.

Qadian Connection

Bareah Madina, a 23-year-old newly-wed from Rabwah in Chiniot district of Pakistan, is also all smiles as she recounts her smooth passage across the border to Qadian on May 27. “I was issued multiple visas for a year, which I am told is rare,” gushes the biochemistry student of agricultural university in Faisalabad.

While Malerkotla may be witnessing a fall in cross-border marriages, Qadian is seeing the opposite.

The quaint town near Amritsar is the international headquarters, and a favourite, of the Ahmadiyya community, whose members gather from 35 countries every December for a three-day convention. Pakistani Ahmadis, though, live in constant fear as the country’s constitution does not recognise them as Muslims.

“We are scared of disclosing our identities when in Lahore,” says Bareah, whose family was thrilled when they found a match in Idris Ahmad Mir, an Ahmadi from Kulgam in Kashmir.

While Bareah has had an easy entry, Tahira Ahmad, from Faisalabad in Pakistan, had to go through the rigmarole of getting her visa renewed every two months for almost 10 years after she married Choudhry Maqbool Ahmad, a Qadian-based writer, in 2003.

“Initially, I was given only a 60-day visa, which I would have to get extended every two months.” This required submitting an application to the SSP at the district headquarters of Batala every few months. It was only in 2016 that she got Indian citizenship. “This was after media highlighted my case,” claims Tahira, who hasn’t met her father for the last 13 years.

“I was rendered a ‘quaidi’ (prisoner) of Qadian as my visa was confined to this town,” sighs the woman who had three children in the interregnum. “They could all go anywhere but I was stuck here.”

Maqbool rues that no exceptions are made even in cases of medical emergencies. “The authorities should extend the marriage visa to (at least whole of) Punjab, if not India,” he implores.

Ahmadis in Pakistan, he claims, are keen to marry their daughters in India. “They know their daughters will get equal opportunity here,” he says, citing the case of Nusarat Jehan Begum from Gujranwala, who is now a councillor in Qadian.

Back in Malerkotla, Razia Bano says she is drawn to the “sukoon” (peace) she gets here. “This land is sweet. The ‘sukoon’ we get here eludes us in Lahore.”

Razia Sultana, the Malerkotla MLA and a minister in the Punjab cabinet, credits the town’s inclusive culture. “All of us, regardless of our religion, are one.”

First Published: Jul 14, 2017 07:33 IST