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When love breaks border barriers

Despite visa issues and diplomatic standoffs, couples from India and Pakistan continue to fight the odds to get married

Parvinder Singh takes a selfie with his Pakistani wife, Kiran Cheema, on their wedding day in 2019 in Patiala
Parvinder Singh takes a selfie with his Pakistani wife, Kiran Cheema, on their wedding day in 2019 in Patiala (Photo: Hindustan Times)

He’s religious, she’s a realist. He’s impulsive, she likes to weigh her options. He’s Indian, she’s Pakistani. But Facebook, they both agree, is “full of possibilities".

It’s a cold February evening and I am on a video call with Amit Sharma from Gurdaspur, Punjab, and his girlfriend, Suman Rantilal, from Karachi, Pakistan. Amit and Suman haven’t met. But last November, Amit proposed to Suman. She said yes.

“I chanced upon her profile last September while checking out photos of Janamashthami celebrations in Karachi," says Sharma, a sales manager at a rooftop sheet manufacturer. “I wanted to know the celebrations in Pakistan better, so I sent her a ‘Hello’ on Messenger."

It was a few days before Rantilal, an MPhil student at Karachi University, replied to his text. “He said that he was pretty excited to talk to someone from Pakistan," she says. “It’s not new to me because I often speak to my relatives in Ahmedabad, Gujarat. But I have never been out of Karachi, so I was curious as well."

Within days, the two of them had moved on to phone calls. Soon, they had started talking up to 3 hours at a time, exchanging notes about their days and lives. Two months on, he asked her to marry him. She said yes after consulting her parents. On a video call, Sharma assured them that he would be happy to relocate to Karachi if she didn’t get a visa for India. “I didn’t expect him to do that but it helped," says Rantilal.

A still from the 2004 film ‘Veer Zara’, which had a cross-border romance.
A still from the 2004 film ‘Veer Zara’, which had a cross-border romance.

In the post-Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA), post-Pulwama era, when the dominant discourse in broadcast media and by ruling party politicians paints Pakistan as a “tormentor" of minorities, the two are aware of what their marriage plans symbolize. “In my neighbourhood, a lot of people regard Pakistan unfavourably," says Sharma. “This won’t shut them all up, but perhaps it might make them see its people differently."

India and Pakistan have a long tradition of cross-border unions, especially in the states of Gujarat, Rajasthan, Punjab and Kashmir, which share a 3,323km border with the neighbouring country. Even after nearly 14.5 million people migrated across the border in the four years after Partition, many still trace their ancestry and share blood ties across the border, even forging marital ties.

Members of the Hindu Maheshwari community in Pakistan often come to Rajkot, Gujarat, to get married. In Qadian, Punjab, members of the Ahmadiyya community from across the world congregate for an annual convention in December during which several marriages are solemnized. There are also instances of public figures marrying across borders, like tennis player Sania Mirza with cricketer Shoaib Malik, and restaurateur Riyaaz Amlani with singer Kiran Chaudhry. But despite their willingness to adapt to a different culture and country, the difficulties in getting visas often make it difficult for a couple to stay together.

“India and Pakistan have a mutually perverse visa regime," says Nandita Bhavnani, author of The Making Of Exile: Sindhi Hindus And The Partition Of India. “Since there have been few visas granted in recent years, Air India and Pakistan International Airlines have both stopped direct flights. Visitors now have to travel via Sri Lanka, Nepal or Dubai. Additionally, you can only go for business, conference or if you have relatives across the border. Once you get the visa, it lists a maximum of four cities you can visit. You often have to report to the police every time you enter or exit these cities."

Such rules, along with the worsening diplomatic ties between the two countries since the 2016 Uri attacks, have led to a sharp drop in the number of Pakistanis visiting India. According to the Union ministry of home affairs (MHA), visitors from Pakistan declined from 104,720 in 2016 to 67,350 in 2017, and to 57,283 in 2018 and the first three months of 2019. Cross-border couples find themselves squeezed in the political standoff.

Take Parvinder Singh, a resident of Ambala, Punjab. In 2014, Kiran Cheema, daughter of a distant relative living in Sialkot, Pakistan, visited Singh’s family. The two got engaged during her next visit in 2016. “Pakistaniyon ki khoobsoorti to mashhoor hai hi (Pakistanis are known for their good looks),"he chuckles on the phone. “But the main thing for me was, our culture was similar as well."

It took another three years—and two failed attempts to secure visas—before Cheema could return to India to get married. But the visa only allowed her to stay in Patiala. “I have moved to Patiala now," says Singh. “My job is suffering, my wife hasn’t been able to come to her sasuraal in Ambala. Her visa expires in April and she’s eight weeks pregnant. We applied for an extension six months ago but haven’t heard since."

A person married to an Indian can stay in India on a long-term visa and can apply for citizenship after spending seven years in the country, according to the Citizenship Act, 1955. But if the applicant is from Pakistan, it takes far longer to get the visa. According to home ministry data released in 2018, 526 of the 1,084 applicants who applied for Indian citizenship before 2011 were from Pakistan.

“In most of the cross-border marriages, the brides belong to Pakistan and move to India," says Hindu Singh Sodha, founder of the Jodhpur-based Seemant Lok Sangathan, which works for the rights of Pakistani refugees and immigrants in India. “Compared to those from other countries, it takes much longer for their applications to be processed. The government cites ‘threats to internal security’ behind such delays or denials. But this is indirectly a policy of discouragement."

Tahira Maqbool from Faisalabad, Pakistan, had to wait for nearly 13 years after marrying Chaudhary Maqbool Ahmad, a journalist in Qadian, Punjab, to get Indian citizenship. “The problems started soon after we had got engaged in December 2001," recalls Ahmad over the phone. “A week after, the Parliament attacks happened. India suspended visitor access to Pakistan soon after. It was only after the media took up my case, and I unofficially went up to former prime minister Inder Kumar Gujral at a seminar on Indo-Pak relations in Jalandhar to intervene on my behalf, that we could get married in 2003."

Ahmad has helped over a dozen people looking to get married across the border since. At present, he’s helping Amit Sharma to visit Pakistan to get engaged to Suman Rantilal. “It’s only when people talk to each other that they realize the distinction between politics and people," says Ahmad. “Then you realize you have some really nice people around, on both sides of the border."

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