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South Asia

Married Across an Intractable Border: Rajput Sodhas in Pakistan Plead For Indian Visas

Members of the Rajput Sodha community in Pakistan have matrimonial linkages across the border in Rajasthan. While special provisions had been in place to allow them to visit their families, visas to India have become difficult to obtain of late.

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Ganpat Singh Sodha, a resident of Umerkot, Pakistan, was unable be with his mother as she lay dying of cancer in his brother’s house 300 km away, across the border in Jodhpur. Three of his children are in Jodhpur too, and he hasn’t seen them in five years.

A former Sindhi teacher in a government school in Umerkot – as the Hindu principality of Amarkot was renamed after Partition – Ganpat had been desperately calling the Indian High Commission in Islamabad as he tried to obtain a visa.

On April 20, 2021, he sent the Commission a voice message in Urdu/English saying, “This is Ganpat from Umerkot, Sindh. I applied for a visa last month also and it was not issued. Now my visa has been rejected again.” He still has audio recording on WhatsApp in which he pleads in a cracking voice, “My mother is on her deathbed. Please issue the visa on humanitarian grounds.”

“We cannot issue the visa as we have not got the necessary clearances from India,” read the official response.

Ganpat’s mother died on May 15, less than three weeks after his plea to the Indian High Commission in Pakistan. A week before she passed away, she made a video on Instagram, pleading with the authorities to allow her son to travel to be with her, but to no avail.

 

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Ganpat belongs to the tiny Rajput Sodha clan, based in Pakistan and estimated to have around 40,000 members. The Sodhas are a minority within the minority Hindu community (itself only having an estimated eight million members), constituting only 0.18% of the country’s 220 million Muslim-majority population. 

Ganpat (49) is the youngest of four siblings. His older sister is married and lives in the Indian border town of Jaisalmer and his oldest brother, Lal Singh, lives in Jodhpur. His other brother, Dalpat Singh, died of a heart attack in Pakistan in 2004, aged 34, leaving behind a wife and two young daughters. Their mother, Darya Kanwar, travelled to India for an angioplasty in 2014 and remained there until her death.

Also read: Cross-Border Couples Rejoice as India Resumes Visa Service To Pakistanis

Visa extensions

The family in Jodhpur was planning the nuptials of Dalpat’s daughters, Madan Kanwar and Chander Kanwar, in December 2016 when Ganpat arrived on his 60-day visa. He applied to the local foreign resident registration office (FRRO) for a six-month extension in order to stay on for the weddings.

For over a decade now, Pakistan’s Sodha Rajputs have been able to avail of such visa extensions for marriage-related visits, granted by local FRROs in Rajasthan. These FRROs can also allow Sodhas visiting Jaipur or Jodhpur to visit cities in border districts like Bikaner, Jaisalmer and Kutch.

The precedent for such authorisations, made specifically for Pakistani Sodhas, emerged from the relationship between the Ranas of Umerkot and S.K. Singh, former spokesperson of India’s Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and later, India’s high commissioner to Pakistan from 1985 to 1989. Singh was close to the Pakistani parliamentarian and 25th hereditary ruler of Umerkot, Rana Chandra Singh, whose wife had had matrimonial links to Singh’s family. 

The Sodha gotra or lineage is part of the larger Rajput community of South Asia. While Rajputs largely marry within their community, intermarriage within a gotra is strictly prohibited. Since 1123 AD when the first Sodha ruler, Rana Amar Singh, settled in Tharparkar and founded Amarkot, his descendants have traditionally married into Rajput gotras in the neighbouring state of Rajasthan, across the border in India.

After Independence and Partition in 1947, local deputy commissioners were authorised to issue permits to people to cross the border. There were direct flights between Hyderabad, Sindh and Jodhpur, says Rana Hamir Singh, the 26th Sodha rule of Umerkot.

Before Partition, Hamir Singh’s grandfather Arjun Singh went by train from Amarkot to Jodhphur. His father Chandra Singh’s baraat flew from Hyderabad to Jaipur to bring back his wife, Rajmata Subhdra Kumari, from Bikaner.

“When my mother missed her favourite food, katchoris and samosas, my father deputed a kamdar to go by train to Jodhpur and bring them to make her happy,” Hamir Singh said, chuckling at the memory.

Also read: For These Cross-Border Couples, Strained India-Pak Ties Mean an Indefinite Separation

These cross-border marriages, not just among the royalty but of ordinary Sodhas too, continue despite increasing difficulties. Since India’s war with Pakistan in 1965, visa regimes have become more restrictive.

“Maybe we should start looking at Rajput families in Nepal,” said Sarita Kumari, Hamir Singh’s cousin who married in Jaipur.

The Hyderabad-Jaipur flight was suspended in 1965 and was never resumed. The train service, too, was cancelled. The Thar Express running between Karachi and Jodhpur was revived in 2006, but then cancelled again in 2019 amid escalating tensions between India and Pakistan.

Since then, the only regular border opening between the two countries is at Wagah in Amritsar, 1,200 km north of Umerkot. While the Monabao border is considerably closer, barely 40 miles from Umerkot, special permission from security forces is required to cross it, which is hard to obtain.

A map showing how far Umerkot is from Wagah (in Amritsar), Jaipur and Jodhpur.

Indian national 

Ganpat’s second wife Dimple has retained her Indian nationality. Their son Kuldeep (7) and daughter Priya (3), both born in Umerkot, are Indian nationals. The three were in India when the coronavirus pandemic broke out, returned to Pakistan for a few months in March and went back to India in November to renew the children’s Indian passports.

With the Monabao crossing closed, Ganpat went all the way from Umerkot to the Wagah border to see off his wife and children and then again later to receive them.

In 2018, the FRRO set up an online platform to allow visitors to apply for visa extensions electronically. However, several Sodhas told the Times of India that they only submit papers physically at the FRRO units. 

The Sodhas say the 30- to 40-day, city-specific visas that India grants them are inadequate for their needs. Arranging marriages takes time and involves multiple visits to the prospective couple’s family homes, followed by long-drawn wedding ceremonies.

When S.K. Singh became governor of Rajasthan, Hamir Singh approached him for help. “I told him we have this problem,” he said.

Singh requested erstwhile President Pratibha Patil to intervene. The home ministry subsequently issued a special notification to the FRROs. But over the past few years, Indian officials have been overriding the authorisation.

When Ganpat applied for his six-month visa extension, the FRRO sent it on to Delhi instead of processing the application locally.

Unaware that the extension wasn’t forthcoming, Ganpat returned to Pakistan only in May 2017 after his nieces’ weddings, a little over two months after his original visa was set to expire but before the requested extension would have run out.

Ganpat later found he had been blacklisted for ‘overstaying’ his visa when he was last in India. No one raised any objections about an ‘overstay’ at the time, he said. In fact, the FRRO duly cleared his return through a departure letter, which is retained by Indian border officials. Had there been an issue, he said, it would have been pointed out when he returned to Pakistan. 

When Ganpat applied for an Indian visa again, he found himself blocked.

Also read: Inside The Mad World of Indian and Pakistani Visa Rules

Weddings, funerals

Ganpat had married his first wife Magan in Jodhpur in 1996. The train service stood cancelled in those days so the barat had flown from Karachi to Delhi. Magan then came back with Ganpat to Umerkot and subsequently obtained Pakistani citizenship. 

Their three children, Chander Veer Singh, Meena and Disha, now 21, 20 and 12, respectively, were very young when Magan died of hepatitis in Karachi in 2012.

Two years after Magan’s death, her family in Jodhpur had arranged for Ganpat to marry her cousin, Dimple Kumari. The children have lived in Jodhpur since. They visited Umerkot once, a few years after their mother’s passing and would like to go again, but their long-term visas (LTV) require a no-objection return to India (NORI) visa if they were to leave the country. This NORI is not easy to obtain, they say.

Ganpat Singh with his children Disha, Meena, Chander Veer, Kuldeep. Photo: Beena Sarwar.

Chandar Veer was engaged at the end of November and the entire family was present except for Ganpat; he had to participate in the ceremony via video call from Umerkot.

“We missed Papa,” Meena told this reporter. 

 

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Kept apart

The case of Ganpat’s family is not an isolated incident; many other Sodhas in Pakistan are forced to remain away from their families due to visa troubles. The aforementioned Times of India report mentions many such Sodhas who duly apply for and are even granted visa extensions while in India, but have these applications rejected once they return to Pakistan, unable to return.

Ganpat estimates that there are around 300 such cases of ‘blacklisted’ Sodhas. He personally knows of dozens of such cases. For instance, Shakti Singh, a physician in Pakistan, is the only brother of four sisters, all of whom were married and reside in India. When he visited them in 2017, he was able to get a visa extension through the local FRRO. He wants to go to India again, this time to get married, but is being refused a visa on the grounds of an ‘overstay’ last time.

Another is Lohran (75) who has recently been widowed. Her children live in India but she must remain alone in Pakistan’s Khipro village because both her and her late husband were blacklisted after their last visit.

Visa issues have also been keeping brides and grooms apart. Three years ago, Hamir Singh had hosted three baraats going from Jaisalmer to Umerkot. When the brides’ Indian visas didn’t come through, he got visa extensions for the grooms.

“I told the Pakistan government that they are my guests, stuck in this situation,” he said. The grooms eventually left but the visas for the brides only came three years later. By then, the babies had been born. “Can you imagine?” Hamir Singh lamented.

Ganpat, however, recently received some good news. Inquiries about his case led to the blockage being cleared and he was told to re-apply for a visa. He couriered the application to the Indian High Commission in Islamabad on 27 November. The process normally takes 4-6 weeks. 

He now awaits the visa that will reunite him with his family, sadly however, without his mother.

Beena Sarwar is a journalist covering issues of peace, media, gender. She tweets at @beenasarwar.

This article was first published on Sapan News Service.