The Ongoing Partition: What Happens When You’re Both Indian and Pakistani

As a person of both Indian and Pakistani origin, Nida Kirmani always thought, ‘Why should I have to choose?’ Until last week, when Indian officials seized her Person of Indian Origin card, saying she cannot be both.

A fence marking a part of the India-Pakistan border, which is going from porous to impermeable rapidly. Credit: Abhishek Baxi/Flickr, CC BY-NC 2.0

For many years I have proudly proclaimed myself a person of subcontinental origin. Like millions of others, both my parents were born in what is now India. At the time of Partition, my father’s family moved to the newly-created country of Pakistan as my dada was a civil servant, and like many of his Muslim colleagues, he took the opportunity to join the bureaucracy on the other side of the border in the hopes of attaining a better position. My nana, on the other hand, was a staunch Congress supporter and even ran a pro-Congress newspaper out of Lucknow. He stood his ground and refused to leave India despite the fact that many of his children would leave in search of better lives over the coming decades.

By the time my parents married twenty-five years later, my father had moved out of Pakistan and settled in the US to work as an engineer. My mother traveled from India to join him there after they had their nikah over the phone, and that is where my sister and I were born and raised. I grew up visiting both Pakistan and India once every few years, when we had saved up enough money to make the long journey home. My sister and I bonded with our Indian and Pakistani cousins and were never made to feel conflicted about these two parts of our identities. I would later learn that this naivety was a very rare privilege.

When I graduated from university in the US, I applied for internships in both Pakistan and India, allowing fate to decide the direction in which I would go. As it happened, I ended up getting a placement at a human rights organisation in New Delhi. The NGO I was working in recommended I apply for a Person of Indian Origin card on the basis of my mother’s previous Indian citizenship. This would allow me to work in India and travel without a visa. My application went smoothly, and in no time, I was handed a small gray booklet that would allow me to continue visiting India for the following 17 years. In the following years, my visits to the country grew longer and more frequent. I ended up conducting my Ph.D research in Delhi and eventually published a book about Muslim women’s experiences in the city.

But while my ties with India were deepening, my connection with Pakistan also continued to grow. My sister eventually got married and settled in Pakistan, and my parents soon followed. Some years later, I was offered a job as a lecturer in Lahore, and I happily accepted, the logic being that I could be closer to my family in Karachi, and being near the border, I could continue to maintain my many personal and professional ties in India. I applied for a National Identity Card of Pakistan (NICOP), which gave me the same benefits as the PIO did in India, and I continued to travel frequently between the countries. My Indian and Pakistani friends and family marvelled at my privilege, and I certainly knew I was lucky, but this also made perfect sense to me. I was a person of both Indian and Pakistani origin. Why should I have to choose?

I decided on a whim to travel to Dharamsala last week as a birthday present to myself after a long and stressful semester of teaching. On the way back across the border a few days ago, I was questioned by the Indian immigration official about how I had both a PIO and a NICOP – a question that I get every time I cross. As usual, I answered honestly. My mother was Indian and my father was Pakistani, so I am both. Usually the immigration officials on both sides of the border respond by saying “Wah, aap tho barri lucky hai madam!” (Wow, you are very lucky, madam!), and stamping my passport. This has always provided me with a glimmer of hope that, even though our higher-ups may be cold-hearted, average people on both sides of the border can still see the absurdity of this division. But that was not the case that day. The immigration official disappeared with my PIO card and returned over an hour later with a letter, which I was forced to sign stating that my card was being seized as I was a person of Pakistani origin and so could not also be Indian origin. The dreaded day had come. After all of these years of proudly claiming both parts of my subcontinential identity, I was finally being forced to choose. When I asked what right they had to do this, they said “The government of India has the right to do whatever it wants,” and that was that.

Of course my personal story is nothing compared to the violent division that took place seventy years ago, which tore families apart and cost millions of lives. As Vazira Zamindar documents in her work, this ‘long Partition’ continued for decades after 1947, and it continues today, as a border that was once relatively porous hardens into an impermeable wall. As relations between our countries worsen, I realise that my own loss is minor compared to the pain suffered by countless others who live the trauma of Partition every day, parents separated from children, siblings from siblings, fishermen held in prison for years because they unknowingly strayed across an invisible liquid border, families living on the border fearing the next outbreak of random firing as each country’s military flexes its muscles.

Even the few areas where exceptions have been made in the past are disappearing. For example, a delegation of Pakistani students on a peace visit was sent back just last week. Just today, a notice was issued that visas for Pakistanis traveling to India for medical purposes will become more difficult to obtain, denying people access to lifesaving medical treatment. As is usually the case, the Pakistani state will likely reciprocate with similar measures in the coming days.

The message is clear: any positive ties between the people of both countries – whether these relate to the sharing of ideas, knowledge, skills, or love and affection – must be permanently severed. In the coming days and years, more cards will be confiscated; more visas will be denied; and the walls will be built higher and stronger, but the problem will not disappear. Centuries of living side by side, of sharing a common culture and heritage, of sharing bonds of love and affection, cannot be erased so easily. They will keep trying to force amnesia upon us, to make us believe we are fundamentally different, to make us hate each other, but we must resist at every turn. Rather, we must remind ourselves that our origin is not written on pieces of paper, on plastic cards or on flimsy booklets that can so easily be taken away. Our origins, our common bonds, are written in our bodies, our souls, our languages, our cultures, our histories, and try as they might, no amount of political posturing can erase that.

Nida Kirmani teaches at LUMS, Lahore, Pakistan.

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    Long ago, humanists like Goldsmith advocated ‘ citizens of the world’ to escape the narrow minded thoughts. This is relevant now more than ever. The skirmishes of Pakistan and India are dividing not only people’s psyche but also their livelihood. Issue of ‘ citizen of the world card’ may be a utopian concept but it has to be thought of seriously

  • Rohini

    My Pakistani friend and I often talk about her elder daughter’s wedding..and she wants me to go..but we are always doubtful about whether i will ever be able to .I tell her my wish is to see the IVC…Harappa…but….shrug!
    Post David HEadley, things became a lot more difficult for Pakistani-Indian couples, especially ones who are Christian. I personally know a Canadian child of a Pakistani-Indian Christian couple (Canadian cits now) who waited several years to be able to get the OCI . The dad never gets a visa easily to visit India although his family was originally from Bangalore pre-partition.

  • Larry O’Neill

    Yea. Everything is black and white. There are no grey areas. You are a citizen first and a human being second. Conform. Accept ignorance, hypocrisy, and brutality. Accept division. Our differences will always be greater than what unites us. Give in to them. Give in to the animosity. You will never find acceptance in more than one tribe. Never let lofty ideals of “love” get in the way of cold hard facts. Build your walls and turn your backs. It’s better for everyone, right? Right?

  • maverick

    I want a US & Schengen visa to move freely too. If wishes were horses, beggars would ride. What was done was absolutely right. And average people on either side have strong hate for each other & the rest don’t know or bother about Pakistan as proved again and again by Pew research polls. Anecdotal evidences don’t constitute reality.

  • Rohini

    “Are you saying that a Christian family migrated from Bangalore, India to Pakistan during partition”

    No, they did not migrate. The man’s father was employed in lahore at the time, with the Indian govt – it was one country, remember? English educated people got great govt jobs. So, they were in lahore, when it all happened. They didn’t leave, because they thought that it was all a storm in a tea cup and that they could come back home to Bangalore anytime – I think that’s where they miscalculated and literally got ‘stuck’ on the wrong side of the border.
    “Anyway, I don’t believe you.” – That’s your prerogative…entirely.

  • m rajivlochan

    So many of those who supported the cause of Pakistan did so out of purely selfish reasons, in search of better opportunities once the competition from the rest of India’s population was reduced. Little did they realise that the demon of religion that they were using would eat them up.

  • Jaswinder Sandhu

    They are doing it, because our countries are under the feudal leaderships. They have already sold their souls to their AKAAS (the corporate bodies like WTO, IMF, World Bank, BRICS etc.) and now they are selling our countries’ wealth to them. Whoever speaks against their ideas, (s)he is termed as a traitor. So there is no hope of your OCI card coming back to you Ms Nida Kulkarni.

  • The Wire

    Nareshkumar C writes:

    India as known land has been there since ancient times even though it was called different names over the ages by different civilizations. India has always existed, only thing was in 1947 Pakistan was carved out of India. The author is clearly of Pakistani origin as her parents & sibling have settled down in Pakistan. As per Government of India rules for PIO / OCI, there is a list of countries whose citizens & citizens of other countries whose origin is from these countries are not eligible for PIO / OCI. Pakistan is on this list of banned countries. The ambiguity of parents born in pre-& post partition India & have moved to Pakistan, have been exploited by Pakistani origin citizens of other countries to successfully get hold of PIO / OCI cards. This only means that there was oversight from concerned authorities to do proper due diligence, it does not mean Pakistani origin have right to PIO / OCI. The incidents where the Indian immigration officials on border, clearly Wagah, where when they came to know that author has both PIO & NICOP & let her in by responding “Wah, aap tho barri lucky hai madam!” was and is a grave lapse on their part and shows lack of knowledge of Government rules regarding PIO / OCI. The author is claiming her right was taken away from her (PIO card was seized) when she clearly knows that her luck had finally run out, first point PIO card issued to her was by mistake and second point when she was let in with both PIO & NICOP, it was an oversight on the part of officials at Wagah, if the port of entry had been airport, the PIO card would have been seized much earlier. She should feel lucky that the Indian authorities did not book her for falsifying information instead of just seizing the PIO card and allowing her to cross the border into Pakistan.

    Nareshkumar C.