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Last Updated: Friday, 24 October, 2003, 16:15 GMT 17:15 UK
A tale of love and visas
By Asit Jolly
BBC correspondent in Punjab

When the Lahore-Delhi Bus - the only legitimate means of travel between India and Pakistan - crosses into India on Monday, one of its 52 passengers will be Tahira Begum.

The young woman - a computer professional from the Pakistani town of Faislabad - is coming to wed her Indian fiance Maqbool Ahmad in an all-Muslim ceremony at Qadian in the north Indian state Punjab.

Maqbool Ahmad
Maqbool Ahmad - refused a visa by Pakistan
This will be the first 'cross-border' wedding ceremony in nearly two years since relations soured between India and Pakistan after an attack on the Indian Parliament in December 2001.

India closed the border after the attack, saying Pakistan-backed militants had carried out the raid.

So now all the Muslim residents of Qadian are eagerly looking forward to Maqbool and Tahira's nikah (marriage), due to be held on 7 November.

The Indian Government's decision to grant a visa to a Pakistani girl to marry her fiance India has revived the hopes of thousands of Muslim families divided on either side of the border.

'Things deteriorated'

"Tahira is my first cousin and as per the custom in our community, we were engaged with everybody's blessings in March 2001," Maqbool says.

"The actual nikah had been fixed for the month of December the same year. But then things suddenly deteriorated and it was no longer possible to travel between India and Pakistan," he remembers.

Given the meagre means of travel, getting both a visa and a seat on the bus is like winning a lottery
Professor Mohammed Rafi

Several subsequent attempts by both families to arrange passage via third countries like the UK and the United Arab Emirates were not successful.

After the closure of the Indian and Pakistani diplomatic missions in Islamabad and Delhi, it became impossible to get a visa from either side.

"We were all very dejected, particularly since this was the first wedding in my family and my ailing mother was most keen to see me married off during her lifetime," Maqbool says.

It was only after the recent peace initiatives between the two enemy nations and the resumption of the Delhi-Lahore bus service in July that things began looking up for the couple.

Personal intervention

Getting a visa was still a major problem.

A journalist by profession, Mr Ahmad had already been refused a visa by the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi.

Wagah
Monday's bus will re-unite Tahira Begum and Maqbool Ahmad

He then happened to mention his problem at a meeting of the India-Pakistan Friendship Forum in Delhi, where parliamentarian Kuldip Nayar and former Indian Prime Minister Inder Kumar Gujral offered to help.

It was only after their personal intervention that it was decided to grant his fiancee Tahira a visa to travel to Qadian.

The wedding ceremony on 7 November is likely to be quite an event.

The nikah will be conducted by Mirza Wasim Ahmad, the Indian head of the Ahmadiya Muslim Sect.

Television networks are already preparing to show the world how love can blossom between individuals in two countries separated by decades of suspicion and hatred.

Long queues

However, not everyone is as lucky as Tahira and Maqbool.

Scores of other Muslim couples in both countries are still waiting for visas and a seat on the Delhi-Lahore Bus.

"Given the meagre means of travel, getting both a visa and a seat on the bus is like winning a lottery," says Professor Mohammed Rafi who teaches in Malerkotla, the only town in Indian Punjab where Muslims are in the majority.

The 52-seater vehicle bus makes the journey four times a week and is currently the only means of travel between the two nations.

There are long queues of people waiting in line both at the ticket counter as well as the Pakistan high commission in Delhi.

Malerkotla residents
Muslims in Punjab have welcomed the reopening of the border

Sajida Begum, who has been waiting to visit her family in Lahore, said she gave up all hope of getting a visa after camping for five days outside commission.

"Only those who are able to establish that it is urgent for them to travel are even considered for a visa," said Abdul Gafar, a doctor in Malerkotla.

According to him, "young people are, almost as a rule, being denied travel permission by both Indian and Pakistani authorities."

However, despite the huge difficulties, Muslim families with relations in Pakistan are still grateful that a beginning has been made in bridging the gap between India and Pakistan.

Hoping and praying relations will move from indifferent to cordial to actually friendly, Professor Rafi says, "after all our very lives depend upon friendly ties between Delhi and Islamabad."




SEE ALSO:
Bus trips signal India-Pakistan thaw
11 Jul 03  |  South Asia
Hopes rise at Punjab border
09 May 03  |  South Asia


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