Pakistani man's back-to-roots trip to India went off script during COVID-19 lockdown; here's what happened next

When a Pakistani man came looking for his ancestral home in India, he had not intended for it to be a long stay

Devparna Acharya April 21, 2020 01:46:51 IST
Pakistani man's back-to-roots trip to India went off script during COVID-19 lockdown; here's what happened next

When a Pakistani man came looking for his ancestral home in India, he had not intended for it to be a long stay. Things had lined up just right for Ehsan Ahmad. The visa — hard as it is to get between traditional adversaries — had been received months in advance.

The timing was tight — with just a week to account for the trip —  but what started out as an inspirational back-to-roots script, found some unexpected plot twists. Almost fancifully, however, it turned out to be a memorable and charming experience for Ahmad.

“I reached on 12 March via the Attari-Wagah border. I am from Sargodha division in Pakistan. My ammi and abbu live in Pakistan while I work as a marketing manager with a private firm in Washington DC,” Ehsan told Firstpost over the phone. He has been living and working in the US for the past eight years.

Ehsan was one of 41 Pakistani nationals, stranded in India for weeks due to the coronavirus lockdown, repatriated to their country on 17 April via the Attari-Wagah border crossing.

Planning a trip to India since last November, Ehsan said the plan came to fruition only in March. “There was a lot of tension on the border so I could not travel. My visa had been issued too. But we heard scary stories related to violence over the Citizenship law and NRC, which is why my trip kept getting cancelled. My visa had arrived in November, but I decided to make the trip now as only a week was left for the visa to expire,” he added.

Pakistani mans backtoroots trip to India went off script during COVID19 lockdown heres what happened next

Ehsan Ahmad with residents of his grandfather's village of Bhangwan. Image procured by author

A single child of a retired marketing manager and a retired teacher, Ehsan had heard many fascinating stories from his ammi about India. Unfortunately, his mother never got the chance to visit her ancestral home.

“She was born in Pakistan, but they never went back, not even to visit. My maternal grandparents came to Pakistan from Bhangwan after the Partition,” said Ehsan. His grandfather, Mohammad Iqbal, was a soldier in the British Army when Partition occurred.

Sargodha, where Ehsan’s parents live, is nearly 200 kilometres from Lahore, and falls in the Punjab region of Pakistan. “In our Punjab, it is a big deal to have known and lived in your ancestral home. I wanted to do that for my mother. But no one could predict that I will be stranded amid the COVID-19 lockdown,” he said with a slight chuckle.

Ehsan reached Gurdaspur on 12 March. His visa was valid for just one week, which meant that he would have to return to Pakistan by or before 19 March. “The day I reached India, I went to Gurdaspur. My mother’s village was in a place called Bhangwan,” said Ehsan. A small village near Amritsar, Bhangwan is not more than an hour and 15 minutes from Gurdaspur on a two-wheeler. Ehsan was living at an Ahmadiyya community guest house in Gurdaspur.

“I had already made friends there. Sab azeez hain aur sabne khub madad ki (everyone has become dear to me, and all of them helped me a lot). ”

Pakistani mans backtoroots trip to India went off script during COVID19 lockdown heres what happened next

Ehsan Ahmad's grandfather, Mohammad Iqbal, a soldier in the British Army when the Partition occurred, with his eldest daughter. Image procured by author

Clueless as to where to start his search, Ehsan’s local friends started by speaking to neighbours. Ehsan said the neighbourhood in Bhangwan is made up of mostly Sikh families. “They were so warm and kind. I told them about my grandfather’s family. Most of them didn’t know my grandparents because they lived there a long time ago, but they served the best gud ki chai,” says Ehsan. After interacting with several other families and visiting a quaint maqbara of a famous peer (saint), Ehsan met a family which had been living there for more than two decades.

“They recognised the name Ghulam Mohammad. He was my grandfather’s elder brother. When I told them that he was my ammi’s father, they were pleasantly surprised. They welcomed us in and showed us photos of where the house stood once. They also gave us interesting trivia about the village. Apparently, it was part of Pakistan for almost a week before it was again marked inside the borders of India,” Ehsan added.

By 15 March, Ehsan had found what he had come for. He saw the soil where his maternal home once stood and was also happy to meet people who knew his grandfather. “I had four more days left before I left for Pakistan,” he said. Meanwhile, on 15 March, the Union health ministry said that India had reported 110 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

According to Ehsan, there was no talk about a lockdown till then. On 19 March, when Ehsan reached the Attari-Wagah border, authorities told him that the border has been shut for two weeks in India. “I was worried. My visa was expiring that very day and I did not know anyone in India. My only hope was to get an extension on the visa,” said Ehsan.

He headed to the Foreigner Regional Registration Offices in Amritsar. The Foreigner Registration Office is the primary agency to regulate the registration, movement, stay, departure, and also recommend the extension of stay in India.

Officials at the FRRO told Ehsan that due to the lockdown, extension of his visa could take a while. Also, the Amritsar FRRO did not have the authority to issue FRRO for Pakistani citizens. Ehsan either had to write to the Ministry of External Affairs or had to apply for it online. He picked the latter. “I realised I would have to stay in Gurdaspur for the next two weeks,” said Ehsan.

In two weeks, Ehsan made friends, got chummy with the locals and enjoyed “unmatched” hospitality. Describing the trip as something that was “meant to be”. He was planning the trip for a long time.

On 21 March, India announced the janta curfew and three days later (24 March) Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a nationwide lockdown for 14 days. The guest house that Ehsan lived in also housed citizens from other nationalities. “There were German and Mauritian nationals. We were quarantined, but we were astonished at how everyone helped each other,” he said.

Everyone at the guest house was tested by government healthcare staff and were quarantined for two weeks. Ehsan said that they had no trouble with food and lodging, as the guest house arranged for everything.

“Initially, it was a big scare. Two weeks is a long time to stay inside a room without talking to anybody. But there were a few hours in the day when the curfew was relaxed for us to buy essentials. I befriended so many people in the market area. They would later come by the guest house and we would chat by my window. Locals would send me homemade food. I felt like one of them. I used to look forward to Modi’s speeches as excitedly as any other Indian,” said Ehsan, quite amused with himself.

Sitting in his guest house room, Ehsan got in touch with many across the country who were from Pakistan and were stranded in India because of the lockdown. Using social media and WhatsApp, Ehsan said he got in touch with over 200 Pakistanis living in India.

“I emailed the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi on 28 March. I called them, too. They asked me to send over the details and I passed on that information to everyone else,” said Ehsan. The mission first told the group that they will try and repatriate the citizens by 4 April, 2020, ten days before the lockdown was scheduled to officially end.

Ehsan then found an unusual ally to help him. “I have been following Justice Markandey Katju and I have seen his work, and I thought he could help,” said Ehsan. Justice Katju told Firstpost that he still doesn’t know how Ehsan got in touch with him.

“I got an email from Ehsan. I don’t differentiate between people based on their nationality or religion, I think that’s why people reach out to me. I do whatever I can. In this case, I contacted my old friend Prabhu Dayal, a retired Indian Foreign Services officer who in turn got in touch with the joint secretary in the Ministry of External Affairs," said Justice Katju.

"The High Commission closely followed-up and coordinated with the Indian side as well as the relevant stakeholders in Islamabad for early repatriation of the Pakistanis,” an official with the Pakistan High Commission said.

Deputy secretary of Public Relations in the Ministry of External Affairs, Mahesh Kumar, told Firstpost that the groundwork is mainly done by missions. “It is the case in every country. The citizens first get in touch with the mission and the foreign ministry facilitates at the final stage.”

On 16 April, when the Pakistan High Commission told Ehsan and the rest that they will be going back to their homes, Ehsan wrote another email to Justice Katju.

“I just want to offer my deepest gratitude to both of you (Dayal and Justice Katju) for highlighting the case of stranded Pakistanis and with your efforts, 41 of them were repatriated through special permission via the Attari Border. I can not express my words for the love and support you have shown to a stranger like me and wrote on my behalf to MEA. Despite the lockdown and the bleak situation in India, it was a memorable trip that will remain forever etched in my memory.”

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