New York-based Ehsan Ahmad who was visiting his grandfather’s ancestral village in Gurdaspur, India says he will never forget how his one-week visit turned into a month-long journey due to a sudden shutdown announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi on the evening of March 24.
India has been on lockdown since March 25 and will remain until May 3, the order was imposed to contain the spread of the coronavirus pandemic.
Ahmad, 29, born in Pakistan and is a naturalized US citizen told indica, he visited India when he was 16 with his parents and this time he decided to visit alone.
So Ahmad, who works in the hospitality industry as a marketing manager, packed his bag and reached Gurdaspur on March 12 and was supposed to return on March 19 to his parents, who live in Pakistan, but got stranded due to the border closure.
“At 16, I wasn’t much interested but my grandparents always talked about Punjab, India all at the time, I thought to visit Gurdaspur again and enjoy lassi, [sweet yogurt drink]” Ahmad said smiling and added, “My grandfather was in the British Indian Army.”
When asked if he likes Lassi, he said, “Proudly, of course, and I speak Punjabi as well.”
But the happy time at his ancestral village changed for Ahmad, on learning the Indian government has shut down borders as well as all the international flights.
“At first I was calm but soon got really anxious as the lockdown got extended and it seemed it’s impossible to crossover,” said Ahmad, who is presently in Pakistan with his parents. He talked to indica through WhatsApp, and sharing his experience on crossing from India to Pakistan he said, “It’s so easy and simple, just a two-minute walk—but to cross one gate to the next is not simple at all.”
It took pretty long from both sides (India and Pakistan) to agree upon opening the borders. And because of the coronavirus, there were no flights from India.
Ahmad said he could not cross the border to go to Pakistan because the government closed the border on March 19, the same day his visa was expiring.
But he was lucky, he applied for an extension online which under the Indian Government directives has been extended until April 30.
Even so, Ahmad said he was anxious, and started running from pillar to post to figure out how to reach Pakistan to his parents.
He said he booked a private taxi and came to Attari, a village of the Amritsar District in the Punjab state of India, and a route to the Indo-Pakistani border at Wagah. However, he was not sure who to approach and whom to reach, so he wrote an email to Justice Markandey Katju, a former Judge for Supreme Court of India and well-known personality in the US, who has been an advocate for peace in the Indian subcontinent, mainly between India and Pakistan.
Justice Katju, on helping Ahmad wrote he just tried to help him connect with the right people at the Ministry of External Affairs.
Justice Katju told indica, “I contacted my long time friend Prabhu Dayal, former Indian Ambassador to Morocco and Kuwait and he in turn contacted the Indian Ministry of External Affairs, Delhi, for help in this connection.”
Justice Katju wrote that he has never met Ahmad. “I only did my duty as a human being.”
Ahmad said he learned about Justice Katju because of his work in bringing the citizens of two countries together. “I was really inspired by his vision of a peaceful subcontinent where there is no discrimination on the basis of faith.”
So he urged Justice Katju through an email: “I have been stuck in Punjab and trying to get special permission to exit through Attari border. I have contacted the Pakistani High commission which has told me that a list of Stranded Pakistanis was sent to the Govt of India for approval but they have not been given approval as of yet.
There are over 25 families right now in the same situation as me and they are looking for assistance from the Ministry of Home Affairs and the Ministry of External Affairs to get back home as it’s getting tougher for us day by day.
I along with other stranded families would really appreciate any assistance you.”
Ahmad told indica, “After getting stranded I along with others (who wanted to return to Pakistan) reached out to the High Commission in Delhi which informed me of other stranded families in the region and got us in touch with them so we could help each other out during the lockdown.”
During the lockdown in Punjab, the local administration and Police continued to work in a professional manner. A team of local medical officers and Police officers paid them a visit. And as soon as they got permission to cross the border the local District Commissioner sprang into action and provided the necessary paperwork to make the journey and the local office gave the necessary exit permission required to exit through the Attari border.
Sharing about his 2020 vacation to Gurdaspur, India, Ahmad said, “The trip I feel will be memorable forever because the one month I stayed I experienced life as a local.”
“I went about life as usual, buying fruit and vegetables from local vendors and eating home-cooked food lovingly prepared by local families,” said Ahmad who had to go through COVID-19 testing and after three days of quarantine was released on being tested negative.
“I was supposed to stay only one week but I ended up staying a month and that one month is a story I feel I can tell to my kids and grandkids,” said Ahmad over the phone.