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Home > Citizens Action and Concerns for Peace in South Asia > Beyond Borders : The road not yet taken [by India and Pakistan]

Beyond Borders : The road not yet taken [by India and Pakistan]

by Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali, 25 June 2010

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(Published in: The Times of India, 24 June 2010)

As the foreign secretaries of India and Pakistan meet in Islamabad today, it is time to imagine a new reality - liberal visa regimes that bring people closer.

Nation-states and their borders are products of specific histories and are shaped by political processes that need to be interrogated. On the Indian subcontinent we need to understand this shared history and reclaim our political imagination to transform the boundaries that divide us.

The highly restricted Indo-Pak border that we live with on the subcontinent today was not created because of Indo-Pak wars over Kashmir. It has a very different history. By separating the border from the Kashmir conflict, this history may allow us to think about more open borders as the road not yet taken - the road that lies ahead when finding solutions through affinity rather than difference.

Historians may argue for years about the roads that led to the denouement of Partition, when a line was drawn on maps to demarcate the territories of India and Pakistan. What this line was supposed to mean to the people was uncertain even to the leaders of the time. The record is littered with formulations that may appear fantastical and ridiculous from our present location, but are extremely important in revealing the many ways in which "Pakistan" was imagined as an Indo-Muslim space that was not severed from the rest of India, and as a territorial entity that would continue to be multi-religious like the rest of India.

The Partition Council left nationality laws to the two emerging postcolonial states but amended the British Indian passport rules "so that there should be no restrictions on the movement of persons from one Dominion to another". How citizenship was to be defined in this multireligious landscape - what would be the national status of Hindus and Sikhs who lived in "Pakistan" or Muslims who lived in "India" - was unclear, but freedom of movement was considered essential to maintain religious, economic and kin ties divided by the line.

Thus, when the first restrictions on movement of people between West Pakistan and India were imposed on July 14, 1948, it was a shock to people in the region. These restrictions were imposed by the Indian government in the form of an emergency permit system when north Indian Muslim refugees, who had fled their homes in the midst of Partition’s violence, began to return to their ancestral homes.

The Indian government was willing to accept Hindu and Sikh refugees from Pakistan, but did not want north Indian Muslim refugees to return to India and claim Indian citizenship. By September 1948, the Pakistani government had imposed a parallel permit system, in large part to prevent Muslims in India from coming to West Pakistan. The excruciating passport and visa system for Indian and Pakistani passport holders - visas issued only for specific cities and requiring invitations, endorsements and police reporting - are remnants of the permit system.

In India, citizenship provisions (articles 5-9) came into force on November 26, 1949, in advance of the Indian constitution. Article 7 declared the act of "migration" as a basis for losing one’s citizenship. Pakistan’s much-debated citizenship laws introduced a "date-line" for "migration," and along with the introduction of the passport system in 1952, made Muslims who remained in India, "foreigners" in Pakistan.

The Indo-Pak border was created to shape and control the massive displacements of Partition, to fix the national status of religious minorities, and to create national difference where none had existed. While the two governments made the border increasingly difficult to cross, people repeatedly campaigned for an end to all travel restrictions. People resisted the border at every stage of its long and contested making and divided communities and families held onto emotional connections despite the inherent difficulties.

Sixty years on, the situation is different. For the post-1971 generation, the other side of the border has become another country; worse, an ’enemy’ country. Extreme border controls have divided people, but haven’t brought peace or helped resolve conflict. If freedom of movement been maintained after 1947, what would India and Pakistan look like today?

Vazira Fazila-Yacoobali is Assistant Professor of History, Brown University, and author of ’The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia: Refugees, Boundaries , Histories’