My little adventure across Wagah

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This is the only crossing in the 1,500-km border but hopefully things will change

By: Venki Ramakrishnan

It was with some trepidation that I accepted the invitation to speak in Lahore. After all, I was born in India and did not know how I would be received there given recent relations between India and Pakistan. But I had always been curious to see Pakistan for myself and thought it would be a friendly gesture to go there before going to India for a lecture tour during which I would be speaking on ‘My Adventures in the Ribosome’.

Leaving Lahore for Bengaluru by air meant a long journey via Dubai or Colombo. However, I noticed that Amritsar was less than 60 km away and there was a direct flight from there to Bengaluru. As a bonus, I could see the Golden Temple and Jallianwala Bagh for the first time. Reaching Amritsar by land meant crossing the border at Wagah, a bit like crossing Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin at the height of the Cold War. There was also the comically dramatic flag-lowering ceremony at the border, carried out each evening by the Indian and Pakistani border forces.

At the Lahore Thinkfest

My arrival in Pakistan went without a hitch — I was received warmly by everyone, from the immigration official to my hosts and fellow participants in the Lahore Thinkfest, which, like the Hay or Jaipur literary festivals, had a range of talks and panel discussions on themes ranging from current affairs to history and literature. I may have been the only science speaker.

I had intended to see some of the sights of Lahore on my penultimate day, but parts of the city were blocked off owing to an anti-U.S. demonstration against the assassination of General Qasem Soleimani. So, on the rainy and cold morning of my departure, my host Yaqoob Bangash and his friend Abraham showed me the Wazir Khan and Badshahi mosques, and the Fort. On our way to the border, we stopped to see the Shalimar Gardens, which had an eerie quality in the rain and mist.

By this time, I was starting to worry. It was past 2 p.m. and the border closed at 4 p.m., but Yaqoob was unperturbed. As we approached the border, my passport was checked about every 50 metres before we reached the immigration checkpoint in Pakistan.

There, I was asked a series of questions by an intelligence official. Why was I in Pakistan? For how long? Where did I work? What did I do? And, oddly, why was I going to India? He wrote down all my answers, and apparently satisfied, waved me on to the actual emigration counter, where a woman with a three-year old child on her lap checked my papers and stamped my passport. I had officially “left” Pakistan, and it was time to say goodbye to my hosts and walk towards India.

Entering Indian territory

In front of me was a fence with a gate, behind which was an enormous stadium with a sign saying ‘India’ and ‘India’s First Line of Defence’. At the gate, a guard checked my papers and waved me through. Right away, another guard asked me for my papers. Irritatedly, I said, in Hindi, “I just showed my papers to your friend” — pointing to the person only a few feet away. He bristled and said, “He’s Pakistani; I’m Indian!” In my general confusion, I had been oblivious of the fact that by going through the gate, I had crossed the border: I was now in India.

The immigration office to officially admit people to India was almost a kilometre away. To get there, I had to walk past the stadium where hordes of people had already gathered to watch the ceremony, with loud patriotic music blaring. Beyond the stadium was a small hut, where someone checked my passport and told me to board a waiting bus. It was empty and there was no sign of a driver. My watch said 3.20 p.m.

I turned on my mobile and found a frantic message from Mariam Ram, who had sponsored my tour. She had kindly arranged for Kuri Abraham, who manages the lectures, to meet me on the Indian side, and said they were all worried since it was late and there was no sign of me. I assured them I was in India, waiting for a bus to take me to the terminal. A few minutes later Kuri called to say that the immigration office was closing and I needed to get there in the next few minutes. How could this be? There were still over 30 minutes to spare. But I had completely forgotten the half-hour time difference between Pakistan and India.

Now worried, I told an official in the hut my predicament, but he blithely said, “The office will wait for the bus.” The driver eventually arrived but showed no signs of moving. Finally, he looked at me dubiously — I was lugging a roll-on suitcase while wearing a fleece, sandals, and a backpack — and asked, “Are you a doctor?” I told him I was actually a scientist. He said, “Oh, you’re the person I was waiting for!” It turned out that my Pakistani hosts had contacted the Indian High Commissioner, who told the immigration office to expect me. Luckily, they were indeed expecting me, and as a courtesy, checked me through even though it was late.

A member of the Indian intelligence who worked there kindly took us back to see the ceremony. There were two things that puzzled me, I told him. The first was that if someone left Pakistan and entered India, and the immigration office closed before they could reach it, what would happen? Why did they have it so far away? Would it not be better to have a separate gate on the side of the stadium for those crossing the border, leading directly to an immigration office? He admitted I had a point, but said if someone exited Pakistan, Indian immigration was obliged to deal with him, no matter the time.

Next I asked, what would prevent me from mingling with the hundreds of Indians gathered to watch the ceremony and simply make my way to Amritsar? Apparently, officials keep an eye on those who cross the border to make sure they board the bus, but if I managed to elude them, I would be in trouble when I leave India since there would be no entry stamp on my passport. And they would get in trouble too, for letting me slip through!

Hope for more crossings

The ceremony itself was every bit as comical as I had expected. The large Indian crowds dwarfed the much smaller Pakistani turnout and made such a loud din that I could not hear the Pakistani side at all — perhaps that was the point. Despite the display of jingoism, the soldiers on both sides are actually quite friendly and exchange sweets at Eid and Diwali. Wagah is the only crossing in the 1,500-km border between India and Pakistan. In contrast, France and Germany, which fought vicious wars over centuries, now have essentially invisible borders with dozens of crossings. Hopefully, there will eventually be similar mobility among the peoples of this ruptured subcontinent.

When I reached my hotel room in Amritsar, I finally relaxed. I had greatly enjoyed visiting Pakistan and meeting many people there, but it was good to be in India again.

  • Venki Ramakrishnan, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for Chemistry in 2009 for his work on the structure and function of the ribosome, is President of the Royal Society. Courtesy: The Hindu

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