Letters ‘put on hold’ as Pakistan stops mail from India for the first time

Amitava Chakraborty
Of the 28 Foreign Post Offices (FPOs) across the country notified to deal with international consignments, only Delhi and Mumbai FPOs are designated to handle postal mails to and from Pakistan. (Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

Even through Partition, three wars, and extended tension, and despite the circuitous route involving the Middle-East, one service did not stop between India and Pakistan. In the wake of abrogation of Article 370 however, Pakistan has stopped postal mail between the two countries.

It’s been more than one-and-a-half months since Pakistan last accepted a consignment from India, on August 27, forcing the Indian postal authorities to put mail marked for the country “on hold”. Said R V Chaudhary, the Director of Postal Services (Mail and Business Development), Delhi, “It was a unilateral decision on their part. This is the first time they have taken such a stand... We are not sure when the order will be lifted.”

Of the 28 Foreign Post Offices (FPOs) across the country notified to deal with international consignments, only Delhi and Mumbai FPOs are designated to handle postal mails to and from Pakistan. While the FPO on Central Delhi’s Kotla Marg acts as the nodal agency for consignments from six states — Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Delhi, Haryana, Punjab, and Himachal Pradesh — besides Jammu and Kashmir, the FPO in Mumbai is the exchange office for the rest of the country.

Said Delhi FPO Superintendent Satish Kumar, “Most of the postal mails to Pakistan are dispatched by this office and a majority of them are from Punjab and Jammu and Kashmir. It is mostly academic and literary material.” Adding that it is a fraction of what they usually handle, Kumar said he had no details of the numbers over the years.

Pakistan’s press attache to India Khwaja Maaz Tariq said he had not heard anything on the matter. As the literary associations and publishing houses in the Punjab provinces in both India and Pakistan hope for a speedy resolution, particularly due to the ongoing 550th birth anniversary celebrations of Guru Nanak Dev, Jatin Desai, member of the Pakistan India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy, said while such bans have no meaning at a time when communication has moved to the Internet, “letters are a way of expression”. “And the right cannot be taken away by any State. I cannot remember a similar incident from the past. Even during the 1965 War and the Kargil War, postal communication was not banned.”

Besides, Desai added, some official communication has to be by posts. “For instance, if an Indian fisherman is arrested, the power of attorney that has to be sent to his lawyer cannot be couriered. And courts do not accept emails.”

Nazar Husain, whose sister lives in Karachi, said the exchange of documents between India and Pakistan mostly pertains to sponsor letters for visa. “In the last 10 years, I have started e-mailing her the documents. But officials sometimes demand an original letter.” Husain also talked about using a round-about way, through courier to Kuwait and then Karachi, during the Kargil War or other times of tension.

Husaina Dewaswala, an Indore resident, said she sent a sponsor letter to her maternal grandmother in Karachi three years ago via a courier through Dubai when officials asked for an original letter for visa.

In Karachi, Malik-ul-ushtar said he too has started using private courier services and routing his mail via Dubai and Kuwait. “The end of postal service will hardly impact communication between India and Pakistan,” he said.

What remains less known is that even India-Pakistan postal mail took this long route, due to the lack of a direct flight between the two countries — except for the parcels booked through Railways. “Until the suspension of service by Pakistan, the Saudi Arabian Airlines carried mails from India to Pakistan and vice-versa, with Riyadh acting as the exchange centre for letters. Prior to that, letters were exchanged in Dubai. About a couple of years ago, even Singapore was the exchange centre,” said a senior official in the Delhi FPO, refusing to be named.

Consequently, the cost of mailing a consignment to Pakistan went up, which could be another reason for this exchange’s slow death. Said the FPO’s Kamlesh Rajput, who deals with Pakistan-specific mail, “While a 250-gram consignment to Pakistan costs about Rs 810, a similar package to the United States would cost Rs 850.”

Chaudhary, the Director of Postal Services, said they were waiting for the Union government to decide their next step. “We have written to the Ministry (of Communications) seeking permission to temporarily suspend booking (of consignments to Pakistan from India). We have not received any direction yet,” he said, adding that they don’t expect an early response as the Ministry would have to consult a host of other ministries, including External Affairs.

(with inputs from TABASSUM BARNAGARWALA in Mumbai)