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India in no man's land in Karachi

Bought by the Indian government from Pakistani owners in better times, six prime properties in Karachi today lie derelict and largely abandoned

Sanam Maher 

On 13 April, I finally managed to get through to Tasnim Aslam, the spokesperson for Pakistan's ministry of foreign affairs. I had called to inquire about three properties I had seen in Karachi, all surrounded by barbed wire-topped walls bearing the same warning painted in bright red: "This property is owned by Government of India. Trespassers will be prosecuted." The moment I was done asking my question, the line was disconnected. I called Aslam back. "There must have been some problem with the connection," I said. No, she replied. "If you needed to ask me this, you should have SMS-ed me." I explained that I had several questions, and asked if I could email her instead. "If you wanted to email me, you should have talked to my staff in the first place," she said. She hung up again.

My next call was to Arif Belgaumi, an architect who works extensively on urban development in "I'm really not old enough to remember how long these Indian properties have been around," he told me. He pointed me to Arif Hasan, another architect and a known history buff. "Call him," he said. "He's older than the hills." I called Hasan, and asked about the properties for the third time that day. "There's no such thing as the Indian government's properties in Karachi," he said. But there are - I'd seen three such places already, and the signs on their walls, I insisted. I asked Hasan if I could email him a photograph of one of the properties. "You can," he said, "but I don't plan to check my email today." I sent the photograph over, but never heard back.

Subsequent searching revealed a total of six properties in Karachi: India House, at 3 Fatima Jinnah Road; India Lodge, at 63 Clifton; Hindustan Court, at 42-43 Kurrie Road; in Frere Town; Shivaji Court on McNeil Road, and Hut 61, Hawkes Bay. These spots are, and for the foreseeable future should remain, small dominions of the Indian republic within An official of Railways, risking trouble for helping a reporter access restricted information, kindly trawled through records from other departments to inform me that the properties were purchased by the from private individuals, with the permission of the Pakistani government, in the 1950s. Shivaji Court was once the Indian consulate in Karachi, and 63 Clifton the consul general's residence. The compound, with a beautiful art deco apartment block from the 1930s, housed consular employees, as did Hindustan Court and India House.

No maintenance
Today, these buildings are derelict and largely abandoned; Panchsheel Court, for one, stands with a crumbling façade, its windows smashed. While caretakers from security firms contracted by the live on these premises - in some cases with their families - they don't appear to be tasked with maintaining them. None of them would speak to me, or even let me through the gates. When I asked the conservator and architect Yasmeen Lari why there seemed to be no effort to maintain the buildings for future use, she replied, "Perhaps that is the intention."

That pessimism is understandable with bilateral ties in their current state. But for the few who remember them in their prime, these properties serve as mute reminders of less acrimonious relations between India and A veteran journalist, who used to get visas in for frequent trips to India - the two countries began offering visas to each other's citizens in 1953 - told me of how, towards the tail end of the 1970s, men and women would gather outside the consulate early on every working day, waiting for the gates to be opened at noon. He said he didn't want his name "in an Indian magazine," and asked to remain anonymous. "I recall standing in line at the consulate and chatting away with people who had been waiting there since 4 am or 5 am," he said. As the first rays of sunlight touched the twin spires of St Anthony's Church, located across the street, stragglers joined the wait. Once, he recalled, "the man standing in front of me left the queue at 11 am, and he was replaced by another." The journalist learnt that these were "professional line-men" who could be hired to stand in queue for late risers. "People would tell you their stories, you made connections and even promised to meet later," he said. "After all, if you're standing in a line together for eight hours, you're bound to make friends." Everyone in line held the same documents: a three-page visa application, a passport, and letters from relatives across the border in India. Some of these letters were authentic and well thumbed, the journalist recalled. Others had been written for a price: just as the line-men had found a niche, so too had entrepreneurs who forged letters, providing convincingly aged paper, fake stamps, and just the right words of love and longing from fictitious relatives. The journalist heard of one man who snapped off certain letters from his typewriters, because his letters would raise suspicion if too beautifully typed. Up until the 1980s, the consulate granted about 1,000 visas per day, according to the first secretary of the Indian high commission in Islamabad, Balbir Singh.

The journalist swore the consulate also held a small auditorium, where a select few locals would be invited to watch Bollywood films, officially banned in Pakistani cinemas after 1965. But by the mid 1990s, all the screenings and the pre-dawn queues were gone.

Expulsion and closure
Early in that decade, the (later renamed the Muttahida Qaumi Movement), a party claiming to represent Karachi's six million Muhajirs - Urdu-speaking post-Partition migrants from India - established itself as a major power in Sindh province. Soon, armed members of the MQM and the government's paramilitary forces locked into a cycle of violence in Karachi, as the government launched a crackdown against "terrorists" and "criminals" in the province and the provincial capital. As thousands were killed or disappeared, the Pakistani government accused India of supporting the MQM, and the prime minister, Benazir Bhutto, turned her ire on Indian nationals in Karachi. Her foreign secretary, Najmuddin Shaikh, called the consulate on McNeil Road "a centre for sabotage", and accused it of working with "agents trained for the purposes of conducting terrorism." In December 1994, the government expelled the consulate's staff from the country and ordered the consulate closed. Its black gate, now locked, still bears an emblem with a flame, a rising sun, and the words "Lead, kindly light" - from a nineteenth-century English hymn loved, and often quoted, by Mohandas Gandhi.

The railways official told me many government employees hesitate to talk about these places. "If you are from the media and you go around asking about Indian properties in Pakistan," he said, "unnki jaan nikal jaati hai" - they grow very afraid. Few among the public think twice about, or even seem to notice, the signs declaring the Indian government's ownership of these plots. Officials, he said, "are scared that people will cause problems if they find out." While some civil servants refused to speak with me, others simply said they had no clue such sites existed. Sharmila Faruqi, a special assistant on culture to the chief minister of Sindh, texted me after we spoke to say, "Please do let me know whatever you find out about the properties, I'm very curious about them."

There have been efforts to restart Indian consular services in Karachi-most notably in 2012, when Pakistan's foreign minister, Hina Rabbani Khar, pushed for a new visa agreement between the two countries, and declared that "we will not be held hostage to history". Those attempts stalled, but Balbir Singh said it is probable the properties will become functional again at some point. "We would love to start" offering visas in Karachi again, he said, "but these issues are mostly reciprocal. I guess until Pakistan starts their consulate in Mumbai, we won't be able to." So the six sites lie fallow in India's hands, even though they consist of prime real estate - the Frere Town property, for instance, is worth at least 94 crore Pakistani rupees, the railways official said. They are "unlikely to be sold any time soon," he told me, "as the Indian government still has some interests here."


Reprinted with permission from the June 2015 issue of The Caravan, ©Delhi Press www.caravanmagazine.in

First Published: Sat, June 13 2015. 21:10 IST
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