In 2012, Delhi and Islamabad struck a deal to let seniors reunite with family members left on the other side of the border during the violence of 1947. In fact, it was never implemented and getting a visa to meet loved ones still takes months. However, over the past year, a YouTube channel and an open crossing for religious pilgrimages have given some hope to the people of Punjab.
Milan (AsiaNews) – This morning the International Booker Prize was awarded for the first time to an Indian writer, Geetanjali Shree, and her English translator, Daisy Rockwell, for Tomb of Sand (original title in Hindi: Ret Samadhi), a family saga that follows the story of Ma, an 80-year-old Indian widow who, after her husband’s death, decides to go to Pakistan to deal with the trauma of partition experienced as a teenager.
The “novel is a stunningly powerful story about stories that never end,” reads a review in The Hindu. Indeed, the tragedy of families separated by the division of Pakistan from India is a reality that remains current even though it dates back to events 75 years ago.
In 1947, when British colonial rule came to an end, and the Indian Union was born, Pakistan declared its independence creating a state that was supposed to be for Muslims in the Indian subcontinent.
The partition was painful. Sectarian violence immediately exploded, followed by a mass exodus in which an estimated half a million people died.
The ongoing territorial disputes between the two countries, in particular over the Kashmir, date back to the same period.
In January of this year, the moving video of two octogenarian brothers reunited after decades of separation thanks to the opening of the Kartarpur Corridor between the two Punjabs, the western one of Pakistan and the eastern one of India, went viral around the world.
Saddiq Khan had not yet turned 10 at the time of the partition, while his brother Sikka was little more than a baby. Amid the confusion that followed riots that broke out on 15 August 1947, they became separated, unaware that they had a brother who lived a hundred kilometers away.
Saddiq grew up in a village near Faisalabad after he fled with his father, who died shortly thereafter, while Sikka, whose first name is actually Habib, remained in India with his mother.
When they hugged again, they had no problem understanding each other, as both speak the same language, Punjabi.
After being together for about an hour, they crossed the border again, but thanks to social media, Sikka got a visa to visit his brother in Pakistan a couple of months later.
Their reunion was made possible thanks to Punjabi Lehar, a YouTube channel, which has more than 530,000 subscribers and is run by two Pakistanis, Nasir Dhillon and Lovely Singh.
With the help of residents on both sides of the border, the two have managed so far to bring together more than 200 family members and acquaintances.
“People from both sides of the border share their stories of separation from their immediate family members, relatives and friends during bloody riots of Participation in 1947, and some link is found through such videos (stories) that help find their loved ones,” said Dhillon, a 37-year-old former police officer.
The meeting between Saddiq and Sikka took place at the Kartarpur Corridor, a crossing that stretches for almost five kilometres, connecting Gurdwara Darbar Sahib, the final resting place of the founder of Sikhism Guru Nanak Dev, in Pakistan, and Dera Baba Nanak temple, Gurdaspur district, in the Indian state of Punjab.
The corridor was inaugurated in 2019 by former Prime Minister Imran Khan to allow Indian Sikhs to travel to Pakistan on an exceptional basis without a visa. Closed shortly after due to the COVID-19 pandemic, it reopened again in November 2021.
Recently, a 75-year-old woman born into a Sikh family but adopted by a Muslim couple who settled in Pakistan discovered she had biological siblings in India.
Mumtaz Bibi was lying on the dead body of her mother, killed during the 1947 riots, when she was found by Muhammad Iqbal and Allah Rakhi.
When her adoptive father's health began to deteriorate two years ago, he revealed to Mumtaz that he was not her real father. The woman began a search, and eventually found and met her three Indian siblings in Gurdwara Darbar Sahib.
The list of touching stories could go on and on; however, red tape between the two countries prevents families separated by the border – drawn after the British pulled out from the “Jewel of the Empire” – from easily and definitively reuniting.
In 2012 Islamabad and Delhi signed an agreement that would allow people over 65 with family ties in both countries to get a visa on arrival. But because of ongoing tensions, the deal was never implemented and could soon become a problem.
Those with painful memories of the partition and the violence that ensued are over 80 years old, while those who were children at the time of independence, such as Saddiq, Sikka and Mumtaz Bibi, often do not know the history of their own family.
The border has other crossing points, which require temporary visas for religious pilgrimages, often lasting ten days, but in general Indian nationals are not granted tourist visas to travel to Pakistan.
Currently, six-month work permits are available, which can be obtained by submitting a letter from an employer, as are transit visas.