A management teacher in India fell in love with a girl in Pakistan. Unable to get a visa, he acted on a plan that would give Bollywood films a run for their money. He illegally crossed into Pakistan via Afghanistan in his search for love.
But unlike the films, his journey has not had a happy ending. Instead, it highlights how tragically difficult it is for Pakistanis and Indians – whether married, dating, or friends – to bridge cultural and legal hurdles to unite.
"India and Pakistan go out of their way to not let their citizens meet each other and make them feel like criminals even when a visa is granted," says Jatin Desai of the Pakistan-India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy, which has been pushing for greater people-to-people contact between the two countries. He adds, "This is thanks to the history of how the two countries were created and the mutual mistrust that four wars have left them with. Every visitor is treated as a potential spy or saboteur."
On November 4, 2012, Hamid Nehal Ansari, a 26-year-old with an MBA degree in Mumbai, took a flight to Kabul for a job interview with an airline. He was to return home on November 15. But he didn’t. And he didn’t answer his phone, unusual for him. His family, not sure what else to do, opened his computer and, discovering he had not logged out of his e-mail, pieced together what had happened to him.
Over the Internet, he had fallen for a girl from Kohat, Pakistan, located in north-western Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province – not far from the Taliban-dominated Waziristan region, and home to a military base.
Reading hundreds of chat conversations, his parents found out that at some point the girl told Mr. Ansari that her parents had found her a match and ended the online relationship. Shortly after receiving that news, Hamid reached out on Facebook to several other people in and around Kohat for help.
"The chats lead me to believe he was trapped in a conspiracy," says his mother, Fauzia Ansari.
Though that's unclear, India and Pakistan have fought four wars since their independence from Britain in 1947. The ties between the hostile Southeast Asian neighbors, suspicious in the best of times, have resulted in a strict visa process. The process can lead to desperate measures, and desperate measures can lead to prison on both sides of the border, say analysts.
The two countries grant only city-specific visa for up to five cities; obtaining one without knowing powerful people in the other country is difficult. Even when a visa is promised, it takes three months to obtain it. Businesses and mixed Pakistani-Indian couples are among the most affected by the visa rules.
The visa regime between India and Pakistan reflects the ongoing mistrust and power play between the two countries' security and political establishments, says Beena Sarawar, coordinator for Aman Ki Asha, a campaign for India-Pakistan peace. “Everything is 'reciprocal' and aimed at making things as complicated and difficult for the other country's nationals as possible.”
Ansari apparently tried for months to get a visa to Kohat, and even managed to get an invite from the Rotary Club of Peshawar to help facilitate the process.
He also met the Mumbai-based Mr. Desai, of the Pakistan-India People's Forum for Peace and Democracy, and asked for help with the process.
"He met me last year at least three times," says Desai, "After hearing his story I tried to convince him to forget the girl, not least for her safety – as the region is known for honor killings. I told him reaching Kohat was virtually impossible."
But his new Facebook friends seemed to be encouraging him to go around the visa process and sneak in through Afghanistan, drawing out a detailed plan to cross at the Torkham Pass. Ansari was in Kohat for two days with Atta ur Rehman Awan, a graphic designer, who has confirmed as much to his family and a local journalist. Whether he met with the girl, is unclear. Her father says she is married to another man and never had any contact with Ansari.
Mr. Awan and a university student Ansari was in touch with both say that when Ansari finally made it to the region he was taken away by "agencies" – short-hand in Pakistan for the all-powerful Inter-Services Intelligence, and is likely in their custody.
"I've been waiting for my son for eight months but the Pakistani government does not even acknowledge my letters and the Indian High Commission merely says they have asked the Pakistani government to inform them of Hamid's whereabouts," says Ms. Ansari.
She worries that her son has become one of the many prisoners from both countries who languish in each others' jails, often for illegally entering the country.
"At the moment there are 300 Indian prisoners in Pakistan and 264 Pakistani prisoners in India," says Indian politician Bhim Singh, who has petitioned the Indian Supreme Court to send home Pakistani prisoners who have long served their sentences.
"Nobody cares for human life and dignity in either country," he says.
But Ansari's mother says after reading the online correspondence she thought her son was just a victim of a type of forbidden love.
Ansari's is not an isolated case. Canada-based Ilmana Fasih, a public health professional of Indian origin, says she dispenses advice to many similar online couples. She successfully married a Pakistani and participates actively in Facebook activism for India-Pakistan peace.
"There is that fascination of the other and the unknown that leads to such love," she says, adding that unfortunately the Pakistan-India love stories rarely end up happily, even if the couple is able to meet in a third country like the United Arab Emiratets for a short while.
"Only the deeply committed can succeed," she says.