Friday, May 21, 2010

Crossing the India-Pakistan border…

I usually fly to India from Pakistan. Last week, for the first time, I decided to take the Lahore-Delhi bus because I wanted to see the famous Wagah border and also the countryside.

The moment I stepped into the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation terminus in Lahore and met the rude staff, porters included, I wondered if it was a bad idea to take the bus.

I waited patiently for the Special Branch personnel to manually check my luggage as there were no scanners. To my horror, a man from the Special Branch began tossing my belongings all over the table and on the floor.

When I objected, he bragged that he had some time ago nabbed a woman who was carrying fake currency. The same treatment was meted out to my sister-in-law and my parents-in-law who were travelling with me. Soon all their stuff was on the floor too, with all of us trying to shove things hurriedly into suitcases because there were just 15 minutes left for the bus to leave.

We were also body-searched by a woman from the Special Branch. The woman made me empty the contents of my bag on her table, spraying my perfume liberally on her blue chador. She checked the money in my wallet, holding it till I asked her to return it.

She made my mother-in-law and sister-in-law empty their hand bags and “requested” my sister-in-law to “gift” her a sunscreen lotion. Before accepting the “gift”, she even asked her how it should be applied!

At the Wagah border, the Pakistani immigration officer refused to stamp my passport. He argued that I could only fly to India (since I had never done the train/bus route before). I explained to him that I could not cross the border on foot (a luxury only the diplomatic community enjoys) but I could take the bus or the train. He ordered me to go and sit.

I was the last one to be called in. He asked me for a police report. I told him I have been exempted from police reporting according to the visa issued to me. He looked at me suspiciously, went to his boss’ room, returned and immigrated me. All along, the Special Branch officer, who had checked my luggage in Lahore, was parked near the counter and having fun at my expense.

Five minutes later, the immigration officer called me again and cancelled my immigration. I was shocked. He told me I was not allowed to do the land route. I again explained my case to him. He went back to his boss’ room and then returned. “Behan aap naaraaz kyon ho rahi hain? Main kar raha hoon na aapka kaam,” he said.

I was immigrated again. As I was leaving the counter, the Special Branch officer called out loudly “Allah aapki kher karey”.

We crossed over to India and were off the bus again – this time at Attari. I was happy to be back in India. Happy that my ordeals were over. I couldn’t have been more wrong.

As I was filling out the immigration form, my mother-in-law announced that about Rs 10,000 in Indian currency was missing from her wallet. I checked my bag and found that a little pouch in which I was carrying some jewellery was missing. The only time our hand bags were checked was when the Special Branch woman had opened them in Lahore.

A few minutes later, I got tapped on the shoulder by a man who had the first three buttons of his shirt open and didn’t quite look like an official. "Passport,” he said. I had just been robbed and I didn’t fancy a man running away with my passport.

“Can I see your identity card please?” I shot back. The man looked at me disgustedly and then walked towards a colleague and whispered something into his ears.

As I continued to stand in the queue for the next ten minutes to get my passport stamped, I noticed that all officers were checking me out one by one.

All hell broke loose when I passed on my passport to the official at the counter. He stared at it hard for a few minutes and then tossed it to the other officers. It changed hands a few times and then three officers took me aside. “You live in Pakistan?” asked an officer.

“Yes. I have been there for over two years,” I offered.

“You are not allowed to use the land route,” the officer from across the counter announced. “You should have a letter from the Pakistan government saying that you can cross the border through this route,” the officer argued, with four others, and scores of passengers looking on.

“But the Pakistanis have cleared me,” I argued.

Soon I found myself sitting in the senior-most officer’s cabin. I repeated myself again for his benefit. He didn’t seem to understand anything at all even though he was introduced to me as the boss at the immigration office.

I was already feeling tired so I asked him if I could use his phone. “The phone is dead,” he said. “We will have to send you back to Pakistan,” he announced. I asked him if there was any other phone that worked at the immigration office. “You think I am lying?” the officer barked.

I told him that I would like to inform my office that I was stuck at the border. “Don’t impress me with your press,” he said rudely.

It suddenly dawned on me that my parents-in-law would be worried because I had “disappeared”. I asked him if I could go and inform them that I was with him. He declined my request with a firm “no.”

By now I had answered all his questions – a dozen times each – “when did you go to Pakistan”; “when was your last visit to India?; “what do you do in Pakistan?”; “what does your husband do there?”; “why did you decide to board the bus and not fly?....”; “how many Pakistanis do I know?”

I was quite exhausted. He stared at me hard and then said, “Why are you nervous?” I insisted I wasn’t. He waved his hand dramatically rubbishing my answer. “Of course, you are. Look at your face.”

I gave up. I realized there was no point talking to someone who was out to “frame” me. He asked for references in Delhi and Islamabad. I gave him sister’s address in Delhi and also an uncle’s, who is a senior IAS official. When he asked for a reference in Islamabad, I gave him a top diplomat’s number.

He removed his glasses and looked at me, “How do you know him?”

It was at this point that the officer decided to let me go back to the lounge, with the half-open-shirt officer parked nearby lest I try to escape!

I saw from the place where I was sitting my mother-in-law crying and pleading with folded hands with officers to be allowed in to speak to me. I saw my sister-in-law also crying. I also noticed my co-passengers giving me looks as if I had been caught with drugs, explosives or worse, a suicide jacket!

I sat in the lounge for another 30 minutes without my passport. Then half-a-dozen officers reappeared saying that I was right and that I was allowed to cross the border in the bus.

The officer who was introduced as boss to me handed me a sheet of paper asking me to write that “I am innocent”. I told him that I am innocent and that I needn’t write that on paper.

He gave me a hard stare and then told me to give in writing that I was not aware that I could cross the border in the bus (even though the officials themselves admitted that I could). I had no option so I did.

My ordeals were, however, far from over. It was the customs official’s turn to embarrass me. “Why did the IB take you away?” he asked, sounding very amused.

Later, on the bus I learnt of other stories of harassment – such as an old woman having to part with Rs 1,000 and another who had to give Rs 3,000 to ensure smooth sailing into India. The bus hit India 90 minutes behind schedule because of my “detention”.

Ever since I have been wondering if the officials “detained” me hoping for their palms to be greased or I just paid the price for rubbing the half-shirt-open officer the wrong way.


  1. This is awful! you got robbed, were you able to lodge a complaint anywhere??

  2. Oh My God... What a horrible, horrible ordeal... i am so ahsamed of BOTH the Pakistani and Indian 'officials'... i am so sorry for you... please put in a complaint to the authorities concerned and put this to a Pakistani paper, if nothing else to embarres the officials concerned...

    I heard that ordinary people who took the bus or train to India were harrased, just how much i did not know...

    These sort of stories always make me despondent about Pak - India relations, how on earth is anything ever going to improve if the few people with the correct papers and permissions are treated this way?

    Just despicable!!!


  3. Are you serious all this actually happened to you!!!!!

    After my numerous travels overseas I had actually begun to have a fairly good impression of our immigration and customs services at airports.

    But then again, i guess the guys who were at the bus station may be the worst of the lot for whom this job could be more like a punishment!!!

  4. This is really sad...I just hope that you are doing okay now and enjoying your stay in India.

  5. Anonymous 1, awful indeed! Yes, lodged a complaint, an inquiry has been ordered in Lahore.

    Anonymous 2, so am I! I feel sorry for people who get trapped by these guys.

    Anonymous 3, yes. Both the Pakistani and Indian media have carried reports about the incident.

    Wordsmith, of course, I am enjoying my stay! I even enjoyed giving it back to the officials at immigration :)

  6. Gawd, how awful..... so much for wanting to see the countryside!! One thing's for sure immigration officers are the same both side of the border. The great thing though is that you are in India.. wow. How long is your vacation?

  7. Deplorable power-trippy officious bureaucrats on both sides of the border. You really need to write a book now!

  8. All i can say Welcome back to home sweet home

  9. Hai Hai,

    People like you are so delicate that an encounter with the real world is just too much. I mean, there are men with their shirts unbuttoned. Hai hai.

    You appear not have gotten the correct visa. Getting a visa to go to Delhi, or example, by bus or train is different from getting to Delhi by air. In other words, you can't just take the bus: you have to have a visa that lets you cross by bus.

    What you didn't realize is that, in Lahore, the immigration officials did you a favour by clearing you. They were perfectly within their rights to hold you back. But because they let you go in violation of the rules doesn't mean the Indian immigration officials will.

    Two friends of mine had to walk back from Attari once because they didn't have the right visa. Another friend was off-loaded from the bus because his visa wasn't correct.

    It's a shame what happened to you. The TDCP should not have issued you a ticket on your visa.

    But you're still comically precious. You do need to get out and figure out how the real world works.

  10. Tulika, yes. Feels good to be back; not very long :(

    Anirban, yes :)

    Ashu, thanks :)

    Mallroadicedtea, thank you for your kind words :) I am glad you understand my visa conditions so well! Do drop by again.

  11. MallRoadIcedTea

    Dude...As far as i understand the author is an Indian passport holder and I find it really atrocious to hear that you need to take permission to decide your mode of transport to come into your own country. Nothing sounds more ridiculous than this.

  12. I feel really ashamed of the treatment towards you at the hands of the Special Branch. Corruption is killing this nation.

  13. Hello,

    Thanks for sharing your experiences. I always like to listen to common man because he's the one who shows the real picture.... the actual scenario.

    Thanks again

    Vipul Pathak

  14. Hi,
    You made a mistake by signing the declaration that you did not know that you could cross the border by bus. You should have not done that and those people should have apologised to you.

    Anyway, happy vacation :). Have a nice time in India!


  15. It gets even worse if and when you use the train, especially on the Wagah-Lahore sector, where the Pakistan Immigration guys in the black shalwar-kzmeez rip passport pages apart, take what they want from passenger baggage and are not averse to manhandling passengers.

    I hope the Aman ki Asha gang reads this.

    Where was the article on this published, please?

  16. Interesting to note that in your reply to Wordsmith, you said you enjoyed "giving it back to the officials at immigration". There in lies another post "Nagin ka badla"?

    Just kidding...enjoy the 45 degrees of northern India (-:

  17. I feel very sorry for you, Inshallah, you will be rewarded jaza for your patience, in this world and hereafter. These are the common things that a common passanger face. Shame for the corrupt officials of any country. The goverments should help, but they are sleeping. I can pray for you and for the situations to get better.

  18. I am really not to surprised by this ordeal, The fact is that there is such low trust between the Indians and the Paki even in the common people that it is bound to be reflected in the babudom of both the countries, ALso whatever the common perceptions maybe , let me tell you from personal experience that Indian and Paki business have very little trust between them, the Pakis are really scared of the Indian goods flooding them ( with good reason too) and the Indians are always scared of giving them any credit, Is it really a surprise that the guards of the border look at all incoming and outgoing people with suspicion. Having said that , since you are Indian citizen and a media person there will certainly be some heads rolling atleast on the Indian side .... Anyways wish you the best , I am sure you are glad to be back .. Are you going to continue this blog ???
    cheers , good to have you back :)

  19. so sad and true. I am glad that I did not opt for it even though air ticket cost me dearly. I heard about miserable experience from my friends who were visiting university of delhi from lums. Immigration at airports is far easier though I had to explain them hard why on earth a Pakistani is going to India on a student visa.

  20. Thanks all for reading :)

    Premal, on a holiday to India. Yes, I made enough noise on both sides of the border!

    Bhopale, enjoying the "nautapa" in your shahar!

    Farooqsoomro, didn't know that they harass students too.

  21. oh. yes they do. never mind. in the end it was worth all the pain. not related in that sense but you may find it interesting..

  22. Even reading your post can send shiver down the spine, let alone experiencing it. That's the reason sometimes many of us say that perhaps we [sub-continent] didn't deserve to get independence so early. Corruption is in the DNA and the babudom is sickening.

    Besides, I think sometimes being a journo also brings trouble because the guys who want money can't ask for it directly and there are people who simply dislike the journos for some concessions which they get, and their behaviour becomes strange, errating and sadistic.

  23. oh yes indscribe, we didn't deserve to get independence. afterall what's a genocide or two by man made famines every decade when it comes from gora masters. getting harassed by 2-bit babus, now that is totally unacceptable.

    humbug !

  24. Hi

    its really sad whatever you faced... On name of security, people jst do anything to harrass people.... then also they are unable to stop terrorists...

    they are best at this only... to harrass common people...

    well forget the crap nd njoii the short vacation you have... nd return via air or else same thing might happen..

    take care

  25. You should have lodged a complain for the way they behaved with you and the stress and problems your family members had to go through..this is so ridiculous and simply irritating!!Isnt there anyone keeping any on such activities??Cant imagine a security personnel asking for presents that too a sunscream!!!!Must have felt like screeming!!

  26. Oh my god..cant imagine the plight of you people.
    Have a happy stay.
    Also write a post if ur complaint bears any fruit :)

  27. Sorry to hear of your ordeal. Sad to say, but it may be that the reason you got it from both sides is that you're an Indian Muslim, not quite fitting the preferred narrative of either side (I know, I know, India is a secular country, but yet...) On the other hand, maybe it's just official officiousness, which could happen anywhere, depending on the state of development of the countries concerned, and India and Pakistan are, for practical purposes, in the same state thereof :)

  28. This was always known but it is good to have a first hand account. I don't know what to say except that I feel ashamed not only as an Indian but also a human being.

  29. A few things come to mind:

    1. What you faced, is something that ordinary folk probably face every time they try and cross the border from either of the two countries. Which only makes it worse given the rampant corruption and harassment. And it needs to stop.

    2. I strongly recommend you try and get in touch with the media, see if someone can cover this story for all the people who've had to suffer.

    3. Name the names. Give out the names of all the people who harassed you on either side of the border. Traveling from one country to another isn't the easiest experience given the numerous VISA and immigration related details one has to deal with. Its appalling how a bunch of foolish low lives are making things worse instead of just doing their jobs.

  30. Stay in Pakistan. Problem solved.

  31. Dear Chanakya... You guys will never get it..

  32. It is quite evident that India's civil servants and immigration officers do not understand the concept of citizenship. If they did, they would understand that your Indian passport allows you smooth entry into your own country.

  33. Dear Chanakya-wanna-be,
    Why should she have to stay in Pakistan. She was returning to her own country, India for a vacation. If she was only allowed to travel by a certain route, then that information should be easily accessible and disseminated from the embassy and verified by the bus route operators at the time when someone buys a ticket from them.

    Seriously es rashtra mein chanakyun (meaning, son of Gold)ka tu sukha paraa hai, nalayakun ka tu jalapralaya (the apocalyptic great flood) hai. Immigration law officials in the UK are not any less through in their investigation but atleast they are professional in their conduct.
    Seriously, because of the treatment meted to pakistanis and indians by the immigration officials on either side of the border, I think some would inevitably question the civility of the whole visiting country.
    Behnji, hope ur stay in India is enjoyable and pl let us know if there was any follow-up to your complaint.
    As an aside, I am much aabhari for your blog. I just found it today and it's great. Much love.

  34. Hey, have you guys moved back to India?

  35. I think Indian Immigration Officers need to be "trained" to understand the word "citizenship."

  36. Heard you on NPR today ! I hope you make the best of your Pakistan hiatus. BTW ...I hate to rub salt on any Indian wounds, but I was wondering if David Coleman Headly was given such a hard time when he crossed into India from the Wagah boder ? You think ...? Unless he greased palms on both sides for a smoother sailing ?

  37. Great to read things as they happen.

    I have long wanted to visit Pakistan some day - guess this gives a lot on why at each level things are in such a bad shape.

  38. wow!

    some experience that.

    so did your ordeal getting covered by media outlets change the "crossing the border" ordeal for the other regular folk or is it as horrific even now?

  39. I think there are two aspects to it, one is that anyhow there is an environment of mistrust between two countries so road journeys are viewed more suspiciously. Secondly, of course the airport officials are more polished than the cops and the paramilitary that is posted at the Borders. But of course this is all a by-product of partition and it should change now!

  40. Well, I was considering this route bec there will be an AAOU Conference at Pakistan next year and would want to cross borders by bus so I can tour upper India. I like bus rides as it offers scenes not normally captured. So are you saying that this route is totally unsafe for women tourists? and that the situation has not improved since 2010?

  41. Pepper, the post wasn't about women or safety....please read the sequel too!

  42. I got this site from my pal who shared with me
    about this website and now this time I am visiting this web site
    and reading very informative posts at this place.

    Also visit my web site ... masaje infantil

  43. Hi there,

    Please can you get in touch with me, I have a couple of questions to ask you regarding travelling to and fro from pakistan and vice versa.


  44. Yes, It happens only in INDIA

  45. i also want to go india in december then suggest me i have to from border or by air but i want to go from border then come back by air and i want open india visa if i have open visa then they argued me alot i know pakistani's very well

  46. Uh do you have pak nationality because Pakistanis are not allowed to have Indian tourist visa

  47. Nice post. I enjoyed this post so much. I would like to share one more thing that Travelomiles provide the best online India travel guide.