In yet another indication that the peace process between Pakistan and India is inching forward, the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s cabinet has reportedly approved a relaxed visa regime which seeks to allow businessmen on multiple entry, non-reporting visas to travel to five cities with everyone else permitted to visit up to three cities. Taken in isolation, this seems like the kind of baby step that should certainly be welcomed but not necessarily seen as a harbinger of lasting peace. Doing so, however, would be a mistake. Rather than going for a grand gesture, the two countries have steadily been making progress on a host of issues of common interest, including trade, coupled with regular meetings between government officials on both sides. All this adds up to the best relations Pakistan and India have enjoyed in many years, a milestone that has been slightly obscured by the slow pace with which it has been achieved. For now, though, this may be the most effective way of normalising relations between the two countries.
There are certainly other small steps, even in the visa process, that can be taken to help the peace process along. As important as trade and commerce is, there are other fields where both countries should be welcoming visitors. The arts, culture and sports are all areas where person-to-person contact can help change hearts and minds. Making it easier for people from such areas to visit the other country is a low-risk and high-reward endeavour. In addition, now may be the right time to release all the fishermen held in India and Pakistan indefinitely for the crime of inadvertently crossing an unmarked border.
Even if all these measures are put into place, it would be naive to think that all outstanding issues between the two countries can be solved anytime soon. The twin problems of Kashmir and terrorism are unlikely to be negotiated in the foreseeable future and with the establishment in Pakistan and the hawks in India still exerting considerable influence, even those as committed to peace as the PPP and the Congress will not be able to make headway. Far better is the current approach that puts these issues on the backburner. Once enough steps have been taken to increase trust on both sides, these issues can be addressed.
Published in The Express Tribune, April 30th, 2012.