In these days of removing our belts and emptying our toothpaste tubes at airports, the indignities of travel in the age of the security state can seem endless. But when a Friday Times correspondent recently traveled from Pakistan to India at one of the countries’ few legal border crossings, the petty absurdities of border officialdom were dumbfounding.
Escorted by a police van in the front and one at the back, every day a bus leaves for Delhi from Lahore. Police block all the other traffic as the bus passes through. Similarly, another bus leaves from Delhi, and under similar protection. There are two buses that undertake this journey; one Pakistani and the other Indian. Both of them have a flag of India and Pakistan on the side.
The young man driving the bike showed me the middle finger
A few days ago I happened to be on the bus to Delhi. Most of the travelers were Pakistanis but there were a few Indians as well. Sitting at the back, I observed how people respond to the bus, traveling through the roads of Lahore. Driving along the canal in the early hours of the day, we passed half-naked men and boys taking a dip in the water. Others still slept on the banks. Most of the people on the road thought we were Indians, as ours was an Indian bus and of course Pakistanis are not worthy of such protocol anyway. A lot of people were just surprised, staring at the bus as it rushed through; young men and children waved at us excitedly. However, the most intriguing response was from a boy of about 14. He was wearing only a shalwar, having just taken a dip in the canal and was standing on the bank near the Shalimar junction, from where the bus takes a left onto the Grand Trunk road. He seemed to be yelling at us to leave the country. The Indians have clearly done him some wrong.
A similar incident happened on the way back, when I was once again on an Indian bus, just having returned from India and heading towards the station at Liberty market. A couple of young men riding a bike drove next to my window for a little while before disappearing under the Mall Road underpass. The young man driving the bike lifted one hand from his handlebars and showed me the middle finger.
“You don’t know these Indians. They come in all guises”
The best response came at the border. When you’re traveling with a group, Immigration and Customs take about an hour each on both sides of the border. Before entering India, I was one of the first ones to get done, so I loitered around the bus carrying my laptop in my hand. A man in his early 50s, wearing a white shalwar kameez, a short moustache and a strict look on his face came to me and asked me to follow him. I followed him into a room where he made me sit in front of him. After the initial conversation, which was about my reason for going to India and my profession, he asked me why I would ever take my laptop to India. Then he wanted to go through my laptop to make sure I wasn’t taking any of the country’s secrets with me. Irritated as I was at this ridiculous and, to say the least, stupid behavior, I complied and opened the various documents and pictures in my computer.
After going through a few documents he came across a map with directions to the Hotel Crown at Dharampura off the Mall Road [in Pakistan]. A few months ago I was to be interviewed by an organization here and they had sent me a map. Alarmed, the official asked me to delete the document. Such vital information could be used by the Indians against us, he told me. I deleted the document, wondering if the guy had heard about Google Maps.
Continuing like this, he stopped at my sister’s resume, which contains all the things that resumes normally contain, such as phone numbers, address and other information. “You cannot take this there. It contains personal information about Pakistanis,” he explained. I refused to delete the file, telling him that I am not sure if my sister has a backup. Of course I could have deleted it, but I wanted to test the waters; see how much he was willing to give in. My articles and all my other research work would have been next in line. This includes work on non-Muslim history and non-Muslim religious festivals, topics considered to be anti-Pakistani in the framework that officials like these work within.
“Nowadays such information is available on Facebook and other websites, sir,” I tried to explain. But this irritated my interlocutor. “You don’t know these Indians. They come in all guises. They will extract this information,” he said.
My humble request to the “authorities” – whoever they are – is to kindly acquaint such patriotic officials with the laws of IT, certainly if they intend to search people’s laptops for sensitive information.
On my way back from India, the same official was sitting near the exit, this time with another official, noting down passport numbers. “Laptop! Yummy!” was their response when they spotted me. (Again!) The same guy wanted to go through it all again. “Did you meet any Indians there?” he asked me as he struggled through the contents of my computer. I was in India for 14 days. I don’t think not meeting Indians was really possible. I told him yes I did meet many Indians. “Who all? Did any government personnel come to you?” “Not really,” I replied. “How is that possible? They must have started following you from the border.”
Well, if they did they were discreet about it, and certainly more competent than their Pakistani counterparts.
27 Sep 2012