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Old man fails to find seat in near-empty IA flight to Lahore

Ehtasham Khan in New Delhi | January 09, 2004 20:53 IST

Abdul Shakkur was in tears when Indian Airlines flight IC-845 took off for Lahore, Pakistan from the Indira Gandhi International Airport in Delhi on Friday afternoon.

He would have been the ninth passenger on the 145-seater aircraft, which was the first Indian flight to Pakistan since January 2002 when air links were snapped following the terrorist attack on Parliament.

The 62-year-old man owns a sugarcane farm in Rajkot in Gujarat and had traveled all the way to Delhi to take the flight.

Holding his ticket in his hand, he had waved and smiled at waiting mediapersons while entering the airport to take the flight.

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But after an hour, he came out with tears in his eyes. Immigration officials had refused to let him take the flight to Lahore.

Unable to convince the authorities, he came out to explain his grievance to the hordes of journalists standing outside the terminal to talk to passengers waiting to board the Indian Airlines flight.

His visa posed a technical problem: it was valid for Karachi while the flight was bound for Lahore.

"My brother went to Pakistan a long time ago and settled down in Karachi. I want to live with him but I know it is not possible. So we used to travel to and fro to meet. I had been to Pakistan six times and he too has traveled to India. But everything stopped after the terrorist strike (on Parliament)," said Shakkur.

The last time he had been to Karachi was two years ago.

"Since then I have been praying regularly for resumption of travel links. My brother is very old. I was not sure if I would ever meet him again. But Allah heard my prayers," said an emotional Shakkur, whose three sons look after his business in Rajkot.

After the bus service resumed, he began saving money to visit Pakistan to meet his brother and nephew Salem Patel who owns a dyeing business in Karachi. "He is like my own son," said Shakkur while showing Patel's visiting card.

Shakkur came to Delhi 12 days ago and checked into a hotel near the Jama Masjid in old Delhi to begin the struggle for a visa.

"I went to the Pakistani High Commission at least 10 times. The visa section is open for just two hours and the officials are not courteous," he said. "There is a long queue and only a few people are able to meet the officials. I got the visa after much hardship."

Initially, Shakkur had plans to take the bus service. But there were no tickets till January 31.

"I could not wait till then. Putting up in Delhi is expensive and I was running out of money. I hoped that all my problems would be solved once I reach Karachi because my brother is there," he said. "So I decided to purchase a ticket on the flight."

On Friday, the immigration authorities at the Indira Gandhi International Airport pointed out that Shakkur had a visa only for Karachi while the aircraft was bound for Lahore.

"They said the Pakistani authorities would not let me enter Lahore because I don't have a visa for the city. My visa is valid only for Karachi," he said.

He says it is not his fault as he was not aware of the technical nitty-gritty.

"Indian Airlines issued me a ticket for Lahore only after examining my passport and visa. How could they if my visa is not valid for Lahore?

"I will find out if they will give me a refund or I will return home," he said in a low voice.

Indian Airlines officials refused to comment.

Showing a bundle of currency notes that he carried in his pocket, Shakkur said, "I am left with just a few hundred rupees. I purchased the air ticket for Rs 4,500 and spent Rs 7,000 to get the visa," he said.

But his determination to visit his brother has not waned.

"I will get some money from home and try another time. Karachi is like my second home. It's a wonderful place. I find more Gujarati-speaking people in Karachi than in Delhi," he said bursting into laughter, forgetting his woes for a moment.

"Wahan bahut maza ata hai (It's good fun there)," said the jovial man.

But he became silent as the aircraft took off at 13:45 IST with a roar. Tears trailed down his scarred dark face as he looked up at the sky.

He then hailed an auto-rickshaw and returned to his hotel.

However, it was a big day for the eight other passengers, including one Pakistani and one British national of Pakistani origin.

Ghulam Rasool, a Sialkot-based businessman, was invited by an Indian firm to fix a deal for surgical instruments. "I came by the bus. Though it was tiring, I enjoyed the journey because you get to see lots of towns and villages along the way," he said. "I am taking the flight only to save time."

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