Six decades after partition, cricket diplomacy allows Pakistanis to return to their homeland

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The Independent Online

Naim Khan is standing outside the cricket stadium in Mohali, in the hot March sun, looking strangely out of place.

The elegantly groomed greying moustache could come from either side of the border, but the baggy salwar trousers are a dead giveaway. You don't see many of them in India. Mr Khan is a Pakistani, and at first sight he's one of the thousands who have come here for the first full cricket tour of India by a Pakistani side in six years.

But cricket isn't the only reason Mr Khan has come. When he applied for his visa he said he was coming for the cricket, and to be fair he has been to watch three days of the first Test in Mohali, though the second day was washed out by rain. But when he went to get his visa, Mr Khan had something else on his mind. He has come to India to see the place where he was born.

He hasn't been there since he was four years old. The 65-year-old Mr Khan is a child of Partition. Though a Muslim, he was born in the Sikh holy city of Amritsar. At the time India and Pakistan were still one country, ruled by the British. But when Mr Khan was only four years old, the subcontinent went through the trauma of Partition. With thousands killed for their religion, and trains pulling into stations with entire carriages massacred, and blood leaking from the doors, Mr Khan's parents took him and fled to Lahore in Pakistan, where Muslims were safe.

This is the first time he has ever been back to India. Yesterday he set off for a birthplace he has only ever known through his parents' recollections.

He wanted to come before, but he could never get a visa, such is the degree of suspicion that exists between the two neighbouring countries, which almost went to war just three years ago in what could easily have turned into the world's first nuclear conflict.

That is where cricket has come in. Last year's "Friendship Series" Indian tour of Pakistan, and this year's return tour to India by Pakistan are being touted as "cricket diplomacy". With a burgeoning peace process between India and Pakistan, cricket is seen as a confidence-building measure, and yesterday Pakistani President Pervez Musharraf accepted Indiaÿs invitation to watch a match.

But little is said of the thousands of ordinary Pakistanis who have slipped into India on cricket visas, only to disappear from the stadiums after an hour or so of play, and melt away into the Indian countryside. They are on their own mission, and one that could prove just as vital in building genuine friendship between India and Pakistan as President Musharraf's much-hyped trip.

In the years since Mr Khan fled what is now India as a wide-eyed child, India and Pakistan have been to war three times, twice over Kashmir and once over Bangladesh. In 2002, they brought the world closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban Missile Crisis.

Given the way Indians and Pakistanis are encouraged by their politicians to fear and mistrust their neighbours across the border, you might expect the likes of Mr Khan to arrive with a lot of mental baggage as far as Indians are concerned. Far from it. It seems he can't praise his Indian hosts enough. "It's really a great feeling to be here," he says. "We've had such a good welcome from the Indians. The culture is completely the same. Indians and Pakistanis, we have the same blood. The same blood," he repeats, leaning across and pinching your wrist to emphasise the point. "All those problems between Pakistan and India came from the government. The people are friends."

Pakistanis have come for all sorts of reasons. Chaudhry Iftakhar Ahmad Bhatti had applied for a visa to watch the cricket, but was really off to pray at a famous Sufi shrine at Ajmer in Rajasthan.

Abdul Sattar, like Mr Khan, was born in what is today India, but his family fled the violence of Partition when he was one year old. He can't even visit the town where he was born: it's too near the border and India won't grant Pakistanis permits to go there.

But Mr Sattar says he wanted to come anyway. "I wanted to see India and meet the people of India." It's his first time in India too. Khemkaran, the town in India where he was born, and Qasool, the town in Pakistan where he has lived ever since he fled, are just two miles apart - but the border separates the two towns. All his adult life, Mr Sattar has lived just two miles from the town where he was born, but he has never been allowed to set foot in it.

"I'm feeling great now," he says. "Before we got here, we didn't know how he'd welcome us. But we never imagined in our dreams we'd get the sort of welcome we've had." When Mr Sattar arrived, he had nowhere to stay. A shop-keeper, he'd spent what was a lot of money for him just to get here. But that first day in the stadium, as the first Test got underway, a local Indian got up and made an announcement. Any Pakistani who had nowhere to stay was welcome to stay at his home in nearby Chandigarh for the entire duration of the match and beyond, completely free of charge.