The loudest lament heard at every single event organised by Aman ki Asha since the launch of this peace initiative on Jan 1, 2010: how difficult it is for Indians and Pakistanis to visit each other’s country given our obstructive, out-dated visa regimes. The loudest demand: let people meet.
While both high commissions have been very helpful in facilitating visas for Aman ki Asha events, we are aware that things are very different for ordinary citizens. The visa issue is an on-the-ground manifestation of the ongoing, low intensity conflict between India and Pakistan, and probably hurts people at the grassroots level more than any other fallout of this state of hostilities. It is the single biggest hindrance to peace between us, the single biggest cause of misunderstandings and negative stereotypes about ‘the other’. If just this one issue could be resolved, people say, fifty per cent of the problems between us will be resolved.
While the Aman ki Asha initiative intends to campaign for peace between the two countries by discussing all contentious issues, we feel that advocating an easier visa regime is probably the single most important objective to campaign for. We are therefore initiating a campaign arguing for easing the visa process; doing away with the totally unnecessary requirements to enter and exit from the same point (and using the same mode of transport), report to the police within 24 hours of arrival and departure and be restricted to one city, or up to three cities, only.
Other hurdles include irritants like cumbersome application procedures demanding onerous proofs. Those living in areas far from the capitals where Pakistan and India have their consulates, face difficulties in submitting their applications, as the Mumbai and Karachi consulates, closed down years ago, are yet to re-open.
We believe it is time our governments made things easier for their people and paid heed to the desire expressed at so many people’s forums. We don’t even allow tourist visas to each other. Our journalist protocol permits only two reporters from each country to work in the other. Even American journalists find it hard to get visas to India if they are of Pakistani origin, and vice versa. India has recently initiated a six-week clearance period for conference visas. The Iron Curtain is further reinforced by the lack of roaming coverage for cell-phones across the border and the ban on television news channels (India doesn’t even allow Pakistani sports or entertainment channels, or live uplinks from India to Pakistan).
The city-specific visa restriction gives rise to absurd situations. Example one: the Pakistan head of IBM, in India for the Aman ki Asha economic conference recently, had a visa only for Delh, and couldn’t even visit the IBM office in Noida, an outlying town that was part of Delhi until a few years ago. Example two: an Indian employee of a multinational company visiting Pakistan on the invitation of the company’s Pakistan office headquartered in Hub, Balochistan, was arrested when he returned from Hub to Karachi to report to the police, as he didn’t have a visa for Karachi.
It takes 30 minutes to drive to Amritsar from Lahore, barely an hour to fly from Karachi to Mumbai – distances far shorter than between Lahore and Karachi or Delhi and Mumbai. Yet Lahore-Amritsar or Karachi-Mumbai might as well be on the opposite ends of the planet, given the effort required to get there.
These hurdles are making our people virtually strangers to each other, despite the commonalities of language, culture, music, food, history. Even worse, due to incessant conditioning and propaganda at various levels, many see each other as aliens or even enemies – to the extent that when young Indians and Pakistanis meet each other for the first time, usually in a third country, they are taken aback to discover their similarities. If a 10-year old daughter of Indian migrants to Australia finds it hard to accept that her Pakistani teacher speaks ‘Hindi’, this is also the case with older college or university students and professionals.
Given the concerns about security, we are not at this point advocating for the ideal European Union-like situation where you no longer need visas and passports to cross the border. But why should the governments not consider granting multiple entry visas for, say three months, six months, a year or three to five years, even ten, after satisfying themselves regarding an applicant’s identity and bona fides, like the United States or Great Britain do? If not for all applicants, then at least for business people, journalists and senior citizens.
Until then, may we suggest that the governments allow a meeting point at border areas like Lahore-Amritsar, Khokrapar-Munabao, and Muzafarabad-Srinagar. Aman ki Asha is willing to finance a pilot project for this purpose at Wagah border – a state-of-the art, comfortable, safe facility, a convention-cum-visitors’ centre, where people can go without visas, for a few hours by appointment to meet family or conduct business.
Our suggestions are simple and doable; our goals, achievable:
- * Grant country visas, not city visas, allowing multiple entries.
- * End police reporting
- * Don’t restrict travel to the same entry and exit points
- * Allow tourist visas
- * Grant visas on arrival, at least to senior citizens, businesspeople and journalists.
With the upcoming Saarc Home Ministers meeting on June 26th and the Foreign Ministers’ meeting on July 15th, this is as good a time as any to start our campaign requesting that the governments lift these outdated, unnecessary restrictions.
Join us. Send your experiences, aspirations and suggestions about ‘Milne Do – let people meet’.