Neeyat in the visa game
There’s little doubt that the “operationalisation” of the visa agreement between India and Pakistan is a welcome development.
For the first time in many, many, years, the two countries have shown the will to inch forward in what remains a long journey to normality.
New visa categories, including one for group visitors, have been created and senior citizens over the age of 65 can be granted a visa on arrival at the Attari-Wagah border. You might even be able to enter and exit from different points.
Those who have travelled between India and Pakistan know how important these developments are. There’s no taking away their significance.
Having personally seen the wretched lot of visa-seekers in both Islamabad and Delhi, one can only hope and pray that these measures are implemented in letter and a different, healthier spirit.
In both India and Pakistan, the elite do tend to manage their visas, but post-David Coleman Headley, the American national who came to recce the 26/11 targets in Mumbai, the Indian bureaucracy has clamped down hard on Pakistani nationals and those of Pakistani origin.
Indian officials are loath to give visas to persons of Pakistani origin, preferring to play it safe after the Headley episode. The ease with which Headley travelled to India had also led Delhi to impose a bizarre rule that those travelling on tourist visas could not enter the country twice in two months.
This rule was relaxed only on December 4, but still applies to nationals from Pakistan, China, Iran, Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and Bangladesh. So, the suspicions and danger of what might happen remains very strong in the Indian establishment.
But what happens is that innocents suffer when such regulations are strengthened. Of course, the security establishment will tell you that such things are bound to happen in an environment of militancy and violence.
Having lived as an Indian correspondent in Islamabad for a little over three years, I have my own visa stories. But will save those for another time. The fact is that suspicions about India and Indians remain strong in the Pakistani establishment – perhaps equal to that of India!
The point I’m making is that while rules and regulations between India and Pakistan are certainly important, neeyat (intent) is equally important. Do the establishments actually want to help people travel between the two countries?
Do the security officials mean what they say? Will they be liberal in granting visas or raise procedural questions? Will you always need more paperwork to prove that you have a reason to visit Harappa or the Taj? Will the consulates in Karachi and Mumbai ever re-open?
I’m not so sure. While individual officials are certainly helpful, the overall attitude in officialdom on both sides of the border is one of suspicion, with hostility lurking in the background.
And, given that members of divided families, many of them poor, travel at times of death or illness, a degree of empathy should be built in to how we deal with individual Pakistanis or Indians.
But we are far, far away from such a situation. Instead, the hostility that is reserved for the poor and underprivileged in South Asia gets the added taint of being a national of the “enemy” State.
Six decades on, India and Pakistan still issue police reporting visas for most visitors coming and going to our countries. (Can anyone enlighten me if there are other countries that do the same?)
So, if the inside of a police station-on-arrival is what you see, will your impression of the “other country” improve?
My view: No.
Amit Baruah is an independent, Delhi-based journalist. He is the author of Dateline Islamabad and reported for The Hindu newspaper from Pakistan.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.