A (British) Indian in Lahore

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As I leave Lahore and arrive in Amritsar there is a feeling, as always, of self-consciousness about crossing over an international border. This is a border that I have crossed many times but surprises me every time. The experiences on the whole have nearly always been courteous. On a personal level the staff, the Pakistani Rangers and the Indian Border Security Force, have been polite, sometimes engaging but nearly always looking at me with some uncertainty, unable to quite place me. Since September 2016, when the Indian security forces were attacked in Uri, relations between India and Pakistan have continued to decline. This inevitably leads to the fall in the foot traffic at the Wagha-Attari border crossing. By default it means the porters have little or no work. It is the ordinary people who are always targeted, unable to get visas due to the strained relationship between the two. The silence at the border was noticeable, hardly anyone crossing the border today. In one short hour I was on the small open train from Wagha to the barely cold AC bus in Attari, India. I did not make much small talk; it was almost all a matter of fact. Sometimes they pull you aside, invite you for chai, and ask inquisitive questions, but not today. Today it was unusually quiet. In the searing summer heat who would want to walk across the border? Moreover, in the hostile lands, who wants to risk crossing the border? The Indian immigration officer, after stamping my passport quips to his friend standing near him that you hardly get any Pakistanis travelling across, I quipped back and said that’s because you don’t give them visas and walked off.

This is a hard and harsh international border; it was imagined in the drawing rooms by the outgoing colonial power but it has been re-imagined by the nation-states today. It is a stark reminder of the animosity and mistrust the two nations have of each other, yet it also conceals other truths. The border is open for all foreigners yet it is the most restrictive for the very citizens of those two nations that it is located in. Indians and Pakistanis are the most scrutinised people at the border. Looking around, one is never quite sure who performs what role; the “secret” agents are always lurking around. The border is harsher and more cumbersome for the ordinary citizens because they lack the right networks and knowledge, others, often elites of both countries, can still manage to cross the border. Thus the reality of this harsh border is dictated by the accessibility to power and while the rhetoric in the media is jingoistic, the lived experiences can be different. This applies also to the staff that regular work at the border. But the silence at the border this time also felt different, the Modi government in India is sending out a different message, a much more aggressive tone is palpable. Jinnah put forward the two-nation theory in 1940 and it seems that seventy years on, he was more perceptive than we imagined.

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