It is well after dark, and outside the Indian High Commission clusters of people are settling into makeshift camps for the night.

Under a tarp strung between two saplings, half a dozen sleeping women are rolled up like cocoons inside their shawls. Nearby, a group of men sits up, smoking and murmuring as someone brews tea on a little pile of charcoal.

The men, cotton farmers from Punjab, have been waiting here for more than a week for an interview inside the commission, the equivalent of an embassy. If it goes well, they will emerge with permission to travel to India.

"We don't mind. We are villagers, so we are used to sleeping outside," said Tharia Ram, 24, who said he plans to travel three days by train -- from Islamabad to Lahore, across the Indian border to Amritsar, then on to New Delhi and Jodhpur -- to visit relatives. "I hope things don't get worse between India and Pakistan, because then all travel could stop."

Ram and the other campers are Pakistani citizens who have applied for visas to visit India. Despite the current border conflict between the neighbors over the disputed Kashmir region, the demand for visas is heavy. Millions of people in predominantly Muslim Pakistan, which was carved out of northern India to create a homeland for Muslims when Britain gave both nations independence in 1947, still have roots and relatives in India.

Relations between the two nations have always been tense, and the border is sealed except for one spot near Lahore. But the Indian and Pakistani prime ministers met there in February to inaugurate a bus service to New Delhi, a symbolic gesture that many people in both countries hoped would offset the long-standing antagonism that reached new heights when both nations conducted nuclear tests last year.

The Lahore meeting did not alter the rules for travel to India, but it inspired and emboldened thousands of Pakistanis to visit, some for the first time. By last month, the Indian High Commission was flooded with 25,000 personal visa requests, far more than it could handle efficiently. The crowds grew so large that Indian officials began distributing tokens by lottery to people who line up each day. Each token bears a date for the person's visa interview, and in theory each person can simply return on that day.

The reality, however, is that most of the applicants are poor people who have traveled long distances, especially from the southern port city of Karachi, where large numbers of Indian Muslims settled after 1947. They have little money for hotels or return trips, so they simply remain on the commission grounds until their interview date arrives.

"I was told to come back on June 17, but I don't have any place to go," Abdul Kadeer, 37, who sells used clothing in Karachi, said last week. An uncle died recently in Delhi, and he wants to pay his respects to the family.

Resting on a cloth mat beside his small satchel, Abdul Kadeer said he had applied for a visa last year but it was denied. He speculated half-jokingly that this was because his name is similar to that of Abdul Qadeer Khan, the scientist most closely associated with Pakistan's nuclear weapons development. "On the 17th, I will go and explain to them who I really am," he said.

By day, the encampment outside the Indian diplomatic compound swells to hundreds of people. Vendors offer rice and lentil stew from metal pots. Urdu language newspapers are perused and passed on. A baby wails; a cow wanders over to investigate a pile of garbage. There is nothing to do but wait, and some people grow angry and impatient.

"My mother is sick, and my husband can't get a visa to go with me to see her," fumed a 34-year-old woman from India who was waiting with her Pakistani husband. "We have been coming here for 15 days and they are disgracing us. I would cook meals and say prayers for everyone if they would just give him a visa."

A number of people complained that there is no Indian consulate in Karachi, forcing them to travel 1,000 miles to Islamabad for a visa and then another 250 miles to Lahore to catch a train or bus. There is one daily flight between the two countries, but few Pakistanis can afford to fly. Several waiting applicants also said they had heard that "fixers" circulate in the area, offering to help desperate people obtain visas for a fee. This week, the grounds were swarming with plainclothes Pakistani police agents, but the campers said the police usually leave them alone.

Officials at the Indian High Commission could not be reached for comment; none of the listed telephone lines appeared to be working. An official at India's Foreign Ministry in New Delhi said there are few restrictions on Pakistanis obtaining visas for family visits, but that often there are delays because of a staff shortage at the commission in Islamabad. He said Pakistan has severely limited the number of Indians who can work on the commission staff.

By far the most frequent gripe among the waiting applicants was that no latrines or portable bathrooms had been installed outside the building, forcing people to hide behind bushes and walls. "There are women and children here, and we have some honor," complained Khairun Nisa, a Karachi sack stitcher and mother of 11 who has been sleeping at the compound for several days. "I would rather set fire to my visa than go through this."

CAPTION: A Pakistani man brews tea outside the Indian mission in Islamabad as he waits to apply for a visa.