13 years in limbo: India and Pakistan’s nowhere manBy Amarnath Tewary Feb 26, 2013 10:41AM UTC
13 years after overstaying his Indian visa for just three days, one man remains entangled in a bureaucratic nightmare, unable to return to his family in Pakistan
“I don’t understand borders… I can never respect borders,” says Mohammed Idrees Alam.
For 13 years now the 46-year-old has been separated from his wife and four children in Pakistan, unable to return because he overstayed his visa in India for three days in July 1999. Since then, the India-Pakistan border has been the source of his greatest hopes, and his greatest disappointments. He is the ‘nowhere man’.
His story begins like this….
Mohammed was born and brought up in Kanpur in the northern Indian state of Uttar Pradesh. In September 1987, at the age of 21, he traveled to his maternal uncle Mohammed Shafatullah’s house in Karachi of Pakistan to “see the place and people on the other side of the border”.
“I had a three-month visa to stay there,” he says. “But when I reached there my uncle’s family members put me under a lot of pressure to marry and even said that the marriage was already arranged.”
“I was reluctant, and trying not to succumb to their pressure but amid all this my visa expired and I had no choice but to stay there for their support and help,” says Mohamed.
Left with no choice, young Mohammed Idrees married Shabana Idrees on 15 January 1988 and entered the leather business to earn his living there.
“I was known as Indian Idrees there,” he says.
Return to India
That same year he, along with his newly wed wife, got visas to travel to Kanpur in India to see his parents but at the last moment his wife’s visa “somehow went missing”, so he traveled to India alone.
“My parents were not happy with the marriage but after some time they relented,” he says.
Meanwhile, his first son was born on 16 October 1988. A year later, on 15 October 1989, he returned to his wife and son in Pakistan.
Over the next 10 years he did good business, gained Pakistani nationality and became the father of three more sons.
“I never wanted to lose my Indian nationality, but for the sake of my children and wife I surrendered my Indian passport to become a Pakistani national,” says Mohammed.
In 1996 Mohammed received his Pakistani passport [no: G057703]. He was no longer an Indian citizen.
“Mine was a life compromised by situation and fate,” he laments.
Nevertheless, he remained in touch with his ageing parents in India.
“In 1998 I got a letter from my father requesting me to come to see him for the last time as he was not keeping well and I decided to go back.”
After a lengthy battle with bureaucracy, by May 1999 he had all the documents he needed to go back to India to see his parents. Then, everything went terribly wrong. The day before his departure his wife went missing along with all four children and all their money. His in-laws informed him that his wife and children were staying with a relative and would return in their own time.
Mohammed Idrees Alam, now a Pakistani national, crossed border at Attari in Amritsar on 10 May 1999 to meet his ailing father, Ahmed Jan. His visa [no: P093026] allowed him just 15 days in India.
His father died soon after he reached Kanpur and amid the grief and trauma Mohammed Idrees Alam overstayed his visa by three days. His visa had expired, and so had his luck. When he got over his grief he went straight to local authorities in Kanpur seeking a visa extension, but it was not granted.
“The authorities arrested me on 12 July 1999 … under the Foreigner’s Act and I was sent to jail,” he says.
It was the time when the Kargil war between India and Pakistan was at its height and the authorities branded Mohammed a suspected terrorist.
After six days in jail he was granted bail by the local court and was released on 18 July 1999. However, the mistreatment continued even when out on bail as he was labeled a terrorist and a spy by the people of the town he grew up in.
“It was worse than in jail,” he says.
For the next decade Mohammed battled the courts, officials and authorities of his Indian hometown to clear the charges so he could return to Pakistan and to his family. Meanwhile, across the border his four children were growing up and his wife coming to terms with his lengthy absence.
Eventually, the Special Chief Judicial Magistrate of Kanpur exonerated Mohammed Idrees Alam of the charge while imposing fine of rupees 500 with the period of detention he had already served in Kanpur central jail for “overstaying his visa”. The court also ordered his repatriation.
On 12 August 2009 the local authorities took Mohammed Idrees Alam to Attari border but he could not cross, as he did not have the required Emergency Certificate and a valid Pakistani passport. His Pakistani passport had expired in 2003.
“He can be repatriated to Pakistan only after the Pakistan High Commission confirms his nationality and issue a travel document in his favor,” says a RTI [Right to Information] reply, No: 28020/51/2012—F.III, from Ministry of Home Affairs [Foreigners Division].
Since then, Mohammed Idrees Alam, a frail man with sad memories, has been struggling to return to home and family, but with no success.
“I’m a nowhere man today. It’s been 13 years I’ve been running from pillar to post to cross the border just for overstaying three days of my visa. It’s quite unacceptable for humanity anywhere in the world,” he says.
Life has not been easy for Mohammed in India. With his childhood home taken by a relative, he has spent time living on the streets and charity houses. Since May 2012, he has been living a small, cramped room in Kanpur.
Kanpur District Magistrate, Mr Manoj Aggarwal, said the authorities are in touch with the Pakistan embassy to try to get Idrees Alam’s passport processed.
“We’re waiting for their response but Mohammed Idrees Alam shouldn’t have overstayed,” he says.
Meanwhile, Mohammed lives in poverty, not even able to get a work permit so he can support himself. But he refuses go give up.
“I’ll keep fighting as I wish to meet my children before my death,” he says.
Mohammed Idrees Alam last talked to his wife three years ago in March 2009 on Holi festival on a neighbor’s phone.
“I just want to ask one question: which country I belong to?”
Who will answer: India or Pakistan?
You can listen to BBC World Service’s excellent report on Mohammed’s plight here