For many years I have proudly proclaimed myself a person of subcontinental origin. Like millions of others, both my parents were born in what is now India. At the time of Partition, my father’s family moved to the newly-created country of Pakistan as my dada was a civil servant, and like many of his Muslim colleagues, he took the opportunity to join the bureaucracy on the other side of the border in the hopes of attaining a better position.
My nana, on the other hand, was a staunch Congress supporter and even ran a pro-Congress newspaper out of Lucknow. He stood his ground and refused to leave India despite the fact that many of his children would leave in search of better lives over the coming decades.
By the time my parents married twenty-five years later, my father had moved out of Pakistan and settled in the US to work as an engineer. My mother traveled from India to join him there after they had their nikah over the phone, and that is where my sister and I were born and raised.
I grew up visiting both Pakistan and India once every few years, when we had saved up enough money to make the long journey home. My sister and I bonded with our Indian and Pakistani cousins and were never made to feel conflicted about these two parts of our identities. I would later learn that this naivety was a very rare privilege.
When I graduated from university in the US, I applied for internships in both Pakistan and India, allowing fate to decide the direction in which I would go. As it happened, I ended up getting a placement at a human rights organisation in New Delhi. The NGO I was working in recommended I apply for a Person of Indian Origin card on the basis of my mother’s previous Indian citizenship.
This would allow me to work in India and travel without a visa. My application went smoothly, and in no time, I was handed a small gray booklet that would allow me to continue visiting India for the following 17 years. In the following years, my visits to the country grew longer and more frequent. I ended up conducting my Ph.D research in Delhi and eventually published a book about Muslim women’s experiences in the city.
After all of these years of proudly claiming both parts of my subcontinential identity, I was finally being forced to choose.
But while my ties with India were deepening, my connection with Pakistan also continued to grow. My sister eventually got married and settled in Pakistan, and my parents soon followed. Some years later, I was offered a job as a lecturer in Lahore, and I happily accepted, the logic being that I could be closer to my family in Karachi, and being near the border, I could continue to maintain my many personal and professional ties in India.
I applied for a National Identity Card of Pakistan (NICOP), which gave me the same benefits as the PIO did in India, and I continued to travel frequently between the countries. My Indian and Pakistani friends and family marvelled at my privilege, and I certainly knew I was lucky, but this also made perfect sense to me. I was a person of both Indian and Pakistani origin. Why should I have to choose?
I decided on a whim to travel to Dharamsala last week as a birthday present to myself after a long and stressful semester of teaching. On the way back across the border a few days ago, I was questioned by the Indian immigration official about how I had both a PIO and a NICOP – a question that I get every time I cross. As usual, I answered honestly.
My mother was Indian and my father was Pakistani, so I am both. Usually the immigration officials on both sides of the border respond by saying “Wah, aap tho barri lucky hai madam!” (Wow, you are very lucky, madam!), and stamping my passport. This has always provided me with a glimmer of hope that, even though our higher-ups may be cold-hearted, average people on both sides of the border can still see the absurdity of this division. But that was not the case that day.
The immigration official disappeared with my PIO card and returned over an hour later with a letter, which I was forced to sign stating that my card was being seized as I was a person of Pakistani origin and so could not also be Indian origin. The dreaded day had come. After all of these years of proudly claiming both parts of my subcontinential identity, I was finally being forced to choose. When I asked what right they had to do this, they said “The government of India has the right to do whatever it wants,” and that was that.
Of course my personal story is nothing compared to the violent division that took place seventy years ago, which tore families apart and cost millions of lives. As Vazira Zamindar documents in her work, this ‘long Partition’ continued for decades after 1947, and it continues today, as a border that was once relatively porous hardens into an impermeable wall.
Centuries of living side by side, of sharing a common culture and heritage, of sharing bonds of love and affection, cannot be erased so easily
As relations between our countries worsen, I realise that my own loss is minor compared to the pain suffered by countless others who live the trauma of Partition every day, parents separated from children, siblings from siblings, fishermen held in prison for years because they unknowingly strayed across an invisible liquid border, families living on the border fearing the next outbreak of random firing as each country’s military flexes its muscles.
Even the few areas where exceptions have been made in the past are disappearing. For example, a delegation of Pakistani students on a peace visit was sent back just last week.
Just today, a notice was issued that visas for Pakistanis traveling to India for medical purposes will become more difficult to obtain, denying people access to lifesaving medical treatment. As is usually the case, the Pakistani state will likely reciprocate with similar measures in the coming days.
The message is clear: any positive ties between the people of both countries – whether these relate to the sharing of ideas, knowledge, skills, or love and affection – must be permanently severed. In the coming days and years, more cards will be confiscated; more visas will be denied; and the walls will be built higher and stronger, but the problem will not disappear.
Centuries of living side by side, of sharing a common culture and heritage, of sharing bonds of love and affection, cannot be erased so easily. They will keep trying to force amnesia upon us, to make us believe we are fundamentally different, to make us hate each other, but we must resist at every turn. Rather, we must remind ourselves that our origin is not written on pieces of paper, on plastic cards or on flimsy booklets that can so easily be taken away.
Our origins, our common bonds, are written in our bodies, our souls, our languages, our cultures, our histories, and try as they might, no amount of political posturing can erase that.
This article was originally published in The Wire, India.
The writer is associate professor at Lahore University of Management Sciences.