In 2012, a Mumbai man entered Pakistan illegally and went to the heart of a conflict zone to find his Facebook love and rescue her from an arranged marriage. Two hours after checking into his hotel, he disappeared.
The Peshawar High Court in Pakistan has asked the government of Pakistan to investigate the disappearance of an Indian national, Hamid Ansari of Mumbai, who his parents say had illegally entered Pakistan through Afghanistan in November 2012 to find his online lover and save her from arranged marriage. His parents have reasons to believe he was picked up by Pakistan’s Inter Services Intelligence, but Pakistan’s government has said they have no information on Ansari.

This is an India-Pakistan story of love and loss that doesn’t have many takers, because too many suspect Hamid could have been a spy or a saboteur. If he is one, would he have spent months trying to reach Kohat from Mumbai and then get caught in just two days?

This is what happened. Sitting in Mumbai, Hamid Ansari fell in love with a Pakistani Pashtun girl over Facebook. He was a 26-year-old management teacher, she was a B.Ed. student. After over a year of obsessing about each other over the internet, the phone and phone messenger applications, she called him one day, crying. She had confided in her sister about this online affair, but the sister told the parents, who decided it was time to find her a husband. It was their last phone call. She soon disappeared from Facebook as well.

A distraught Hamid did all he could to find out about her. He even found another girl in Kohat and requested her to find out. But to no avail. He decided to try and get a visa to Kohat, making several calls to the Pakistan High Commission in Delhi. As a Rotarian, he managed to get an official invite from the Peshawar chapter of the Rotary club to visit Peshawar and Kohat to interact with the youth. This didn’t help him get a visa either.

He met Jatin Desai of the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy to see if Desai could help him get a visa. Kohat would never be possible, Jatin said. It’s in the heart of a conflict zone. Besides, Jatin said, that area is known for honour killings. Forget the girl, he said. But Jatin could see he was mad about the girl; she was all he could think of.

He convinced his parents to let him fly to Kabul in November 2012 for an interview for a job at Kabul airport. A week later, his phone stopped working.

With no news of him, his parents opened his computer and found he had not logged out of his Facebook and email. Reading hundreds of Facebook chats, they pieced together what had happened.

Three online Pakistani friends urged Hamid to reach Kohat via Kabul, by illegally crossing the porous Afghanistan-Pakistan border. They not only encouraged him to do so, but gave detailed instructions and instigated him to do it soon.

Meet Atta Ur Rehman Awan, a graphic designer with Dastak, an Urdu magazine in Kohat; one Shazia Khan who claimed to be a medical doctor in Islamabad; and a mysterious Ms Saba Khan.

This is an excerpt from a chat between Shazia Khan and Hamid:

Shazia: It’s very difficult to get a visa to Pakistan these days. Why don’t you get a visa to Afghanistan instead? From Kabul, come to the Pakistan border at Torkham and I’ll get you to Karak or Kohat from there. Luqman also says you should come via Kabul. Kabul to Torkham is only 150 kms.

Hamid: Visa for Kohat is very difficult. But visa for Lahore is easy. I asked someone at the Pakistan High in Delhi what is the way out. They said I need an invitation or a clearance from the Ministry of Interior. By the way I have a friend in Jalalabad…

Shazia: Jalalabad is just 50 kms from Peshawar…

Hamid: I asked my friend about going to Peshawar from Jalalabad, he said there’s a lot of vigilance and there’s a very high chance I would get caught. Without a Pakistan visa getting back into Afghanistan may also be difficult. It might be easier if I get a Lahore visa. I have a friend in Sindh who says that once I reach Lahore he can get me an extension visa to Kohat. But I need to first get a visa to Lahore. I am ready to take all risk.

Shazia: Oh there is no checking while entering Pakistan from Afghanistan. I will get you to Peshawar in my own car. I’ll also get you an ID card of either Pakistan or Afghanistan.

Hamid: Now you tell me what to do.

And this is a chat excerpt (translation from Roman Urdu) between Atta bhai, as Hamid called him, and Ms Saba Khan, while Hamid was not online, but was cc-ed:

Atta: I’ve been recommended this man Kamran Khan (phone number). Call him and see who he is and if he can help? But remember nobody should know Hamid is Indian. If anybody comes to know, there could be a mess.

Saba Khan: I too gave you someone’s number, was it of help? I got that number from a Frontier Corps guy. And yes, apart from us nobody knows that Hamid is Indian, let’s be clear about that.

Atta: Okay, I will call that guy. I got to know from someone that there is no problem in coming from Kabul to Pakistan. All you have to do is to strike a deal with the taxi driver at Kabul airport. There is no checking. It is only on the return trip that there are ten check points. What do you recommend? That man also told me the trick is that nobody other than the taxi driver should know you are going to cross the border. The taxi driver will drop you at Torkham.

And this chat is between between Atta and Hamid:

Atta: Please don’t mind my saying this, but you are very lazy. If I were in your place, by now I would have done everything.

Hamid: I know, but I have deliberately delayed this. And all this mess was caused by her sister. It all happened too suddenly. And then this visa problem. These Hi Commission people don’t give a visa soon.

Atta: Now don’t delay it more.

On November 12, he sent an email to Saba Khan. The email’s IP address shows it was sent from within Pakistan. Here is an excerpt, translated from Roman Urdu:

“Listen, I am fine here. I am with Atta bhai. I reached late at night, but everything is fine. Just keeping a very low profile. I should get a new mobile by evening; will let you know. For obvious reasons, I cannot call you.

Take care. Inshallah we will both return soon. Pray for us.”

Hamid Ansari’s mother is a college lecturer in Mumbai and his father is a banker. They emailed all these characters and got no replies. Most phone numbers in the chats have stopped taking calls from Indian numbers. Mrs Fauzia Ansari had a relative in Dubai call Atta Ur Rehman Awan, who said that he had found a ‘Dhaba’ in Kohat for Hamid to stay, where he was for about two days before “agencies” took him away.

Nearly a year ago, I managed to get in touch with a local journalist in Kohat, who was enthusiastic about helping bring Hamid back home. He called up Awan, who said that “agency people” took him away, and that he could not say more on phone. The journalist then met Awan in person, and also a university student that Hamid was in touch with. This journalist told me that both said “agencies” had taken him away and that the two had been questioned by them too.

The journalist from Kohat said that he could not say more on the phone and could not help, as it was “a sensitive matter”. One journalist in Lahore who had shown interest in the story said the small hotel that Hamid had stayed in was called ‘Palushan’. She visited Kohat and the Palushan Hotel, and found that Ansari had booked himself in room number 3 under the name “Hamza S/O Muhammad Khalid” on 14 November 2012 at 5.20 pm. As he was on his way to his online lover’s house, Kohat police detained him and searched his hotel, and allegedly found Indian documents. Thereafter, Ansari was probably handed over to military intelligence for investigation.

Ansari made a huge mistake, but one feels angrier about his Pakistani friends online, who first gave him this crazy advice to go to Kohat via Kabul and take the girl back to Mumbai. Hamid reportedly had the film Dilwale Dulhaniya Le Jaayenge on his mind – he wanted the father to willingly let the girl go with him.

The chats also contain the woman’s father’s address and phone number. I called him up too and he angrily said what any father would say in such a case: “She had no friend. Nobody came here. She is married now.”

Perhaps the “agencies” think he is an Indian spy, given the paranoia in Pakistan about India’s alleged activities on the Afghan border. At the same time, Indian investigators first thought he was being trained for anti-India activities. Having read his long Facebook chats, I am convinced he was nothing more than a naive young man whose love was blind. Many Indians have a fascination for beautiful Pashtuns. Hamid was perhaps one of them.

When the Indian government asked Pakistan, their answer was that they didn’t know. Now, thanks to the Peshawar High Court, the Pakistani government will be forced to give a written response. Hamid’s mother approached the Indian Supreme Court to make the Indian government do more to get Hamid back. After the Indian government told the court it was doing all it could, the court dismissed the case in March this year.

Hamid has been missing for 19 months now. The maximum punishment for illegally crossing into Pakistan’s borders is six months in jail. This Eid, whoever has Hamid in their custody, might want to think of the blessings they would get if they send Hamid home.

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