Partition cleaved the littoral Nawayati community of Bhatkal from their kin in Karachi. Between visa delays, citizenship hardships and the need for approval to venture anywhere out of town, Mohit M. Rao finds out what makes their cross-border marriages tick

Forty-year-old Fatima (name changed) stands on her toes, ready to sprint to the unseen part of the room to ward off an unwelcome question. She attempts to drape the pallu of her sari across her face in keeping with the rigid proprieties of a tradition that dictate she is veiled. Myriad emotions play on her countenance as she flaps her hands and narrates tales of police, Pakistan, intelligence officials, kidney stones and her frequent visits to the court. Her three children, a husband working in faraway Dammam (Saudi Arabia), are her universe, save for the men in khaki and those claiming to be from intelligence who intrude without so much as seeking permission.

Born in Pakistan and with a Pakistani passport, Fatima is testament to the cross-border relationships of the Nawayat community in Bhatkal and Karachi — two regions that have come to symbolise terror and radicalism in the popular press. In the small town, over 14 ‘Pakistani’ wives are currently married to Indian Nawayati men — a tradition that has lasted centuries despite the post-Partition rhetoric.

A passage to India

“Whatever you write, please say that getting the visa is very difficult. As the wife of an Indian, they should let us stay here in peace,” she says for the third time in the brief conversation we have. She stands at some distance in the living room, while we are restrained at the porch. She is one of the few women of Pakistani citizenship in Bhatkal who has consented — albeit reluctantly, and with much persuasion — to talk about her experiences of living in India.

Fatima is no stranger to India, and her association with Bhatkal goes back to her childhood when she would accompany her parents during their annual vacations. The visits would be for a few months, mingling with their relatives and friends, before the family would have to return to their thriving jewellery business in Karachi. However, it was 15 years ago that she became Bhatkal’s daughter. On one of the visits, her family met her husband’s family.

Within a week, a small gathering of 20 people marked their nikah (wedding). “He is a distant relative and his family is known. I said yes because I had been visiting Bhatkal so often, I did not think it would be a problem if I stayed here,” she says. For the first few years, Fatima stayed in Karachi, where her first child was delivered. The child, now in Class VI, is a ‘Pakistani’. The other two children were born after she moved to Bhatkal a decade ago. They are ‘Indian’.

A high wall and metal gates completely cut off their houses from the main road. Their lives are confined to the compound. And once a month, Fatima visits the nearby court for violating her visa guidelines.

In July 2014, she developed a slipped disc. Her back seemed to be on fire, and local doctors told her to go to Mangaluru — around 140 km south — for treatment. To travel legally, however, she needed to take written permission from the SP’s office in Karwar, nearly 130 km north. “Each time I had to go to Mangaluru, I had to wait a week or 10 days for the permission to arrive from the SP but with the slipped disc, the pain was too much and I had to leave immediately,” Fatima says. With her back convulsed and pain shooting through her body, she informed the local police. An oral permission was given, not a written one, she says.

A few weeks later, the Home Ministry enquired about visa violations in Bhatkal, and eventually, a head constable of the police station was suspended, while charges under the Foreigners Act, 1946 were filed against Fatima and two others — a couple who like Fatima had left the town on an emergency.

Like most embroiled in the labyrinths of the judicial system, Fatima looks for a closure. Even though she manages extensions on her Long-term Entry Visa (which varies from individual to individual and could be between one and five years), she knows she and her elder son have to get citizenship within four years. “He has four more years until his Class X examinations, for which he requires an Indian identity card. If he does not have it by then, he will have to drop out,” says Fatima, who knows the difficulties in finding a school willing to take a ‘Pakistani’ child. Does she ever think of going to Dammam, away from the difficulties? “I am alone there. My in-laws stay here and so Bhatkal is my home,” she says.

The terror tag

The rhetoric against Pakistan, which is reaching a crescendo in political offices and media newsrooms across the country, cuts through the air and lands uncomfortably in Bhatkal where a centuries-old relationship of the scattered Nawayati Muslim community is gradually dissipating.

The town barely stretches six km between the highway and the sea. The skyline is dominated by minarets of mosques (more than 90 estimated to be in the town), while large mansions dot the area — many of them owned by West Asia-based businessmen.

Much of Bhatkal wakes up to the first prayers, when the air is still cool and a slight mist hangs around the distant mountains and on small rivulets that make their way lazily to the sea. Fishermen leave at dawn, following the Chowtani river and out into the open Arabian Sea. Not too long after the last call of prayer ends in the day, Bhatkal goes to sleep.

But in the undercurrents of mosques and coconut trees, shopping streets with ‘Dubai goods’ and restaurants serving the famous Bhatkali fish biryani, there is a palpable nervous energy. Sulaimani tea (spiced black tea) flows here as freely as rapid speeches that attempt to defend the reputation of Bhatkal: a town that heaves under the heavy tag of “terrorism” and “radicalisation”.

The town had shot into infamy in 2010 when the Indian Mujahideen, supposedly founded by three Bhatkal youth — Yasin, Riyaz and Iqbal — were blamed for bomb blasts in Bengaluru and Pune. The notoriety seemed to strengthen as Abdul Kadir Sultan Armar from the town was believed to be recruiting for the Islamic State; Anwar Husain ‘Bhatkal’ is believed to have died fighting alongside the Taliban in Afghanistan; and, early last year, three persons were arrested and “bomb-making” material found at their homes in Bengaluru and Bhatkal.

It is in this context of terror and intelligence bureaus that Bhatkali Nawayatis, who comprise up to 70 per cent of the town’s population of 32,000, find their links to Pakistan under immense scrutiny. After all, last year, the family of an accused told reporters that Pakistani numbers found on a cell phone were that of his in-laws and not the Inter-Services Intelligence.

Maqbool Ahmed, principal of Jamia Islamia where over 700 children study Islamic studies, says with a tinge of pride that the Nawayatis can trace their lineage to the businessmen of Iran. Perhaps sailing on dhows, they crossed the Arabian Sea and made their way up the Chowtani river nearly 1,500 years ago. “They were shrewd businessmen. They married local people, and developed a language and culture that remains unique,” he says.

Nawayati, the language, is evidence of their roots: it sounds like Persian and Urdu, with smatterings of Marathi and Konkani. Conservative and insular, the community of barely 60,000 is prosperous, having found their fortunes as traders and businessmen in Bhatkal, Karachi, Dubai and Saudi Arabia. Though separated by sea and rigid borders, the pockets of Nawayatis continue to remain in contact. This year, police records show at least 15 persons have visited Bhatkal town from Pakistan — a number remarkably down from the hundreds who would visit before the “terrorism tag” descended on the town.

The Home Ministry’s office in Bengaluru has more than 60 applications for citizenship are pending since 1992, a majority of them from the Nawayati community. Many have left the “stressful” citizenship procedure halfway and migrated to West Asia, an option taken primarily by the younger generation. Some, including the mother of a 10-month-old child, are in Karachi awaiting visas that would allow them to stay with their husbands in Bhatkal. The local qazi, who requests anonymity to stave off any “trouble” — local intelligence men were at his office when The Hindu reporter entered — repeatedly asserts that Nawayatis do not marry ‘Pakistanis’. “It creates an issue if we say that. We have only married those from our community who happen to be in Pakistan due to Partition. We do not seek Pakistanis, we seek Nawayatis.”

Burden of a Bhatkali

With a skull cap and a shaggy beard, Mohammad Illyas wears the famous Bhatkal lungi high on his waist. Though the 63-year-old is an Indian passport holder, he knows the burden of being a Bhatkali. He converses with us from the porch, while in the shadows of their living room, his wife, Nazira (57) listens in and answers sharply on occasion. In their 36-year marriage, they have had six children — all Indian. For more than a decade since Illyas’ retirement, they have stayed in Bhatkal.

Nazira, the daughter of a food exporter and who was married during a visit to Bhatkal from Karachi, remains Pakistani. The struggle seemed to reach an end in 2009, when the local police accorded a clearance certificate — certifying the couple were not a security threat and citizenship could be accorded. However, their files disappeared into the labyrinths of bureaucracy.

The delay in according citizenship may have ended up completely dashing the hopes of Illyas and Nazira. He has been charged under the Foreigner’s Act in 2014 for “helping” his Pakistani wife travel from Bhatkal to Delhi where she had to get her passport renewed. They had sought permission without a written acknowledgement. And, when they checked into a lodge in Delhi and the Home Ministry was alerted, they had little proof to show that they had followed procedure.

After the constable was suspended, Nazira and her Pakistani identity came under attack. “I was alone in the house when police officers, angry about the suspension of their colleague, barged in. They started to kick me, and said that it was because of me that trouble happened. They told me they’ll kick me back to Pakistan,” Nazira says from across the hall.

With the couple ageing and listing multiple ailments which need medical care outside Bhatkal, Illyas has approached the High Court to quash the case and expedite processes that would make his wife Indian. “Is the delay because we are Muslims and that too from Bhatkal?” he asks.

His words would echo in another conversation with another citizenship seeker, who says the Home Ministry tends to be kinder to the “whites” and “non-Muslims” than to Muslims, particularly Bhatkali.

Forty-seven-year-old Syed Aboobakker works as a salesman at the bustling Sultan Street, while his wife remains largely confined to the home nearby. After the first seven years of their marriage — after which, having lived on Indian soil, she is eligible for citizenship — the family started the process of obtaining long-term visas and an Indian passport. “We have applied six times, and been rejected. When we finally met Home Ministry officials last year, they said the local police have not yet submitted the reports,” he says.

Punishment by paperwork

Many of those seeking citizenship narrate the complex journey involved: from dingy rooms of the local police station to the Superintendent of Police in Karwar, to Room No. 224 in Vidhana Soudha in Bengaluru where the Home Ministry has a regional office, and to New Delhi — to the Pakistani embassy to renew their passports (without which Indian visas will not be given) and to attend camps organised by the Union Ministry of Home Affairs. Apart from this, the wives have had to travel to Karachi every two years to renew their identity cards without which Pakistani passports will not be renewed.

Permission for movement is usually given from the SP office in Karwar and is given late. The seven-year-old son of a Pakistani woman fell violently ill and was in ICU in Mangaluru for a week. As permission had not come, she could not attend to her son through his hospitalisation. Similarly, the local police refuse to move files of the citizenship seekers. “They do not even want my money. They are scared of the file, as there is a sense that the might of the Central government will fall on them if the file is signed,” says a citizenship seeker. Another says his application for citizenship had been rejected as the “reports” of different intelligence departments did not tally on minor details.

Visa restrictions as well as the rigmarole of obtaining long-term permission (one to two years at a time) are seeing fewer cross-border marriages now. A local maulvi remembers officiating around 15 weddings in the past decade. All have involved Nawayati women coming from Pakistan as there is a strong belief that Indian authorities will not give visas to Pakistani men. Just three months ago, a wedding of a Bhatkali man to a Karachi bride had to be shifted to Pakistan after the bride’s family was denied visas.

This was not so before the 1990s — when the communal colours of Bhatkal had exploded — and when visa regulations were more relaxed. “In 1965, there was an article describing the region as ‘mini Pakistan’ as many Pakistanis used to visit here.

They would come here as Bhatkal was their home town, and in this mingling of families, marriages would happen,” says M.M. Haneef Shabah, an old-time doctor, who firmly believes that the “terrorist tag” for the Nawayat community was part of a larger conspiracy. “Now, visas are difficult to get, and families do not get it for more than a month. People do not want to visit, and even the weddings have reduced.”

As we scour around Bhatkal, we reach a shop, tiny bottles of homoeopathic medicines lining its cupboards. Syed Anwar (name changed), the owner, narrates the hardships he endured before getting a passport for his wife. Though married for 22 years — and they have had three children — his wife was granted an Indian passport only seven years ago. “We could get the passport done because I had sought political influence. The process is slow and stressful. One has to keep answering the same questions repeatedly to multiple agencies — as if we are all suspects,” he says in a low voice that barely rises from the sounds of the busy bazaar. Did he ever believe that the passport would come? “If I had known getting married to a Pakistani would cause so many visa problems, I would not have married. But it is our fate,” he says plaintively.

The town could soon see another second Pakistani bride getting Indian citizenship if all goes well. Earlier this year, Ayesha (name changed) got a mail out of the blue saying the Home Ministry has given in-principle approval for citizenship. All that was needed was for the Pakistani embassy to give a No Objection Certificate. “For 15 years since the wedding, we have not been able to go anywhere with the children. When it comes, there will be a big party, and then a long holiday,” says her husband Abdus Nawayat (name changed). Ayesha takes no chances; she does not step out of her neighbourhood, lest some visa guideline be violated.

I ask Abdus if there were times he wanted to give up and go to Dubai. “These are only government procedures… I know people facing lots of marital problems,” he chuckles. His laugh cuts through the bureaucratic delays and suspicion and — even if fleetingly — lightens the strained relationship between India and Pakistan.

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