By I. A. Rehman
THE latest round of India-Pakistan ministerial-level parleys reminds one of the element of niggardliness in the subcontinent’s culture that has given currency to quite a few sayings about the reluctant offerings of goat milk.
Given the state of relations between the two subcontinental neighbours, their foreign ministers did try to make the best of the ritual. Mr Krishna’s observations were laced with honeyed homilies and Ms Khar generously used the term ‘centric’ combined with various modifiers, perhaps to dispel the impression that the thinking of Pakistan’s top authorities is India-centric. That they did move towards normalisation of their foolishly soured relations by a few centimetres, if not by some feet or yards, cannot be denied. But there is something in the joint statement and in some of the remarks made by both camps that betrays their fear of being caught in the act of establishing peace. That somebody would mention the Mumbai terrorist attack or Abu Jindal or Samjhota Express to confirm that neither side has stopped the point-scoring game. Both sides know very well that they must join hands to ensure mutual good and yet they are afraid of the elements in their respective societies that have flourished, thanks to the two establishments, by fuelling discord between the two natural allies.
Fed for decades on stories of Islamabad’s resolve and capacity to force India to yield on Sir Creek, Siachen and even Kashmir, the people of Pakistan are told of disappointment at the lack of progress on these issues. The fact is that the time for resolving these issues in the manner they were sought to be settled some decades ago has passed. True, all the differences between India and Pakistan need to be resolved, but that is not going to happen in the near future. They will begin to be resolved only after the process of normalisation of relations between the two countries has become irreversible and cannot be resisted by anyone.
Meanwhile, one should welcome the accord on a liberalised visa regime. The most important feature of the new agreement is the decision to allow visas on arrival at the Wagah and Attari checkposts to people aged 65 or above. A similar decision was announced by India some years ago but could not be implemented for reasons that remain unclear. One hopes there will be no back-pedalling this time and that both governments will make adequate arrangements for dealing with the rush of travellers. The decision to exclude travellers by air is understandable. The governments wish to retain the power to refuse entry to persons on exit control lists; in the case of travellers by air the return would raise questions of costs and availability of flights.
True, the system of control lists can be challenged, but that is not possible at the present moment. Also welcome are decisions to allow two-year multiple-entry visas to senior citizens and those having spouses across the border. Concessions have been made for businessmen, though not all businessmen are equal. Richer businessmen will be allowed to visit twice as many places as less affluent members of the community and will be exempted from police reporting.
One wonders whether the presumption that rich traders are more responsible than others can be justified as fair or correct. The granting of visas has also been made easier for pilgrims, those travelling in groups and holders of diplomatic passports. All this is welcome, though it does not satisfy the demand for a visa-free regime for India and Pakistan that is gathering mass support. The security agencies on both sides have serious anxieties about people who stay beyond the visa period, but this problem should be dealt with through improved monitoring of aliens’ movement and by prescribing penalties for overstaying. The security agencies also worry, often to a greater extent than necessary, about visa abuse by criminals, spies or terrorists.
These categories include resourceful people who are usually capable of exploiting the concessions allowed to privileged citizens. Nowhere have strict visa regulations succeeded in preventing undesirable people from crossing international boundaries.
Two matters now need to be addressed. There is no indication that the conditions a visa seeker has to meet are going to be relaxed. Unfortunately, the two governments have a record of cooperating with each other to make the securing of a visa by a poor person extremely difficult by asking for documents that are usually only available at high prices. Besides, the disadvantaged will not be able to enjoy their right to travel across borders so long as visas are issued only in Islamabad and New Delhi and the points of entry and exit are not increased. In short, is it possible to say that someone like Krishan Chander of Sukkur will not have to repeat the complaint he had made some time ago? “I kept going to the Indian mission in Islamabad,” he wrote, “from February 2011 to May 2012 to get a visa. The documents I had obtained from India were returned by the high commission on the ground that the 45-day period of their validity had expired. When in May 2012 I went to the high commission with documents received from India by e-mail, they changed the documents required. “I have two sons living in India and I have to go there in a year or two to meet them. Now instructions have been pasted on the notice board that we must secure a sponsorship certificate. I should have Rs25,000 in my bank account. I should also be paying tax to the government of Pakistan. There should be a character certificate by a police officer higher in rank than an SHO.
What has the mission got to do with such documents? A poor man is put to trouble because we do not have a bank balance. We have to pay a heavy fare for going from Sukkur to Islamabad. Only people with cars or rich persons can go to India … Note: I am 66 years old.”
This letter should be read by Pakistani officials who accuse the Indian mission of trying to harm this country by generously issuing visas to Hindu Pakistanis. In any case, Krishna Chander can now get a visa on arrival at Attari. One is sure Indians applying for visas at the Pakistani mission in Delhi have many similar stories to tell. Hopefully their prayers also will be heard.–Dawn