THERE is no doubt that both the new India-Pakistan visa regime and the bonhomie were welcome. But substance was lacking when Interior Minister Rehman Malik and Sushilkumar Shinde, his Indian counterpart, celebrated the formal signing of the accord in New Delhi. The new regime will increase the number of cities accessible to visitors from three to five and exempt those holding a business visa from reporting to the police — an exercise of considerable hassle at the moment. Similarly, while senior citizens will get their visa on arrival, the application process for younger visitors travelling by land will take 45 days or less.
While these are positive moves, they hardly constitute a festive prelude to the cricket-crazy subcontinent’s first series since 2007. It is clear, then, that despite several meetings between Indian and Pakistan officials since the 2008 Mumbai attacks, including at the very top, the trust deficit has hardly been plugged and bureaucracy continues to hamper greater people-to-people contact.
The news about a new visa accord, had, in fact, been broken by former Indian foreign minister S.M. Krishna more than a year ago, and had raised hopes all around. There were speculations that consulates would reopen in Karachi and Mumbai, police reporting would be done away with and visa processing would be easier in terms of the time taken and the volume of documents required. Not much of that sort has happened and obtaining a visa for most people remains a hassle as before; perhaps the only real piece of good news in this context was the granting of visas to more than 3,000 Pakistani cricket fans. So the new regime remains a baby step at a time when giant strides are needed to build up trust. Evidently, security agencies view all visa-seekers as potential terrorists and forget that actual terrorists do not seek visas. Indian officials continue to say there has been little progress in the Mumbai trial in Pakistan, and Islamabad has done little to assuage New Delhi’s concerns. Indian policy indicates it has made the normalisation process conditional upon the Mumbai suspects’ trial. This is unfortunate, even if New Delhi’s frustration is justified.