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Nihal Chauhan | January 07, 2004 14:29 IST

Part I: The road to Pakistan

When the much-awaited email from the YIP team arrived, congratulating me on becoming part of the group to Pakistan, I felt a sense of achievement mixed with excitement and niggling fear. Besides listing the financial aid, travel and visa information, the email also said, 'There will be apt security throughout your trip to Pakistan. Private guard companies will ALSO be employed.' All said and done, it was clear I would be visiting a hostile country. Besides, we would be in Karachi where the journalist, Daniel Pearl, had been recently abducted by terrorists and brutally killed. 

Pushing these thoughts to the back of my mind, I got down to the task of getting my visa. Like others in the group, I had been told to contact Nirmala Deshpande, a Gandhian and veteran peace activist, and her assistant, Babita. That we, as Indians, were viewed with suspicion and were going to be monitored throughout our visit was clear from the fact that the visa application form had a section that asked for details about the persons we wished to visit while in Pakistan. It also contained instructions regarding police clearance for Indian visitors. All this seemed very daunting.

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The fear of visiting Karachi was not restricted to the Indian participants only. When invited to join the 'Youth Without Borders' egroup on the Internet, we were privy to emails flying back and forth between the participants. It soon became clear that some Pakistani participants from Lahore were just as wary of travelling to Karachi!

In an odd way, this was comforting. Reassured, I threw myself into preparing for the trip by collecting articles on the India-Pakistan situation and perceptions about Pakistan as reported by our media. This information would be essential for the first two days of the conference when wrong notions would be discussed and, if possible, corrected.   

In the midst of all this, it was reported that the Delhi-Lahore bus would ply again. This was great news for a fund-strapped YIP as it meant travel costs would go down drastically with Indian participants travelling to Lahore by the 'Dosti' bus and then taking a flight to Karachi. The cost would come down to $ 225 per person. The bus service was due to begin on July 1, which suited us perfectly. Things seemed to be going our way.

However, as the days passed, it became clear the 'Dosti' bus was mired in a political morass. With its wheels going nowhere, we began looking for the lowest airfare to Karachi. Our group, which had participants from all over India, was to meet in Delhi and then fly to Karachi via Dubai or Kathmandu. With the cheapest fare working out to over $ 500 per person, we were doomed to a bleak beginning. Moreover, there was still no sign of our visas.

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A couple of days before our departure, Qatar Airways came up with an unbelievable bargain fare for YIP participants to fly from Mumbai via Doha to Karachi. This left seven participants like me, who came from Delhi or around it, to hotfoot it to Mumbai -- not too feasible an idea given its last minute nature. So we were still stuck with neither visa nor ticket in hand.

Suddenly, the problem-ridden fog lifted as if by magic. Our visas were cleared thanks to some high level nudging, including intervention by former Naval chief Admiral L Ramdas, whose wife Lalita, an educationist and social activist, was to be a guest speaker at the convention. And YIP's Pakistan chapter, headed by 18-year-old Ragni Kidvai, had convinced Emirates Airlines to fly us out of Delhi via Dubai by business class at a rock-bottom rate!

The evening of June 30 passed in a rush of adrenalin and hasty packing -- gifts for our Pakistani counterparts, Indian sweets for new friends… I only wound down when a well-meaning family friend sent us a recent Time magazine with the article, Karachi: Asia's Roughest, Toughest Town, a story on a city 'out of control.' My parents, though encouraging about the trip, looked even more worried than they had in the past few weeks. As the son of a serving defence officer, I felt even more vulnerable. Was I flying into the heart of a problem? A frisson of fear lingered...

Part III: Asalamu Alikum
Part IV: Pakistan: A new perspective

Illustration: Dominic Xavier

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