Indian External Affairs Minister SM Krishna and Pakistan’s Interior Minister Rehman Malik signed a historic document on September 8 on the bilateral visa regime that can transform South Asia. Eight different categories have been named for a new visa regulation, including six-month visas to visit five cities for tourists without the condition of invitation and police reporting, for businessmen of two categories with several years of multiple entry facility, and at-the-border visas for senior citizens above the age of 65, etc.
The most stubborn roadblock to the breakthrough was experienced from the Pakistan military, which has acted as an arbiter of all civilian policy towards India. Army Chief General Ashfaq Parvez Kayani is to be praised for accepting the positions taken by two mainstream parties — the PPP and the PML-N — over the past decades towards India. The new visa regime will knock off the most insuperable hurdle in the way of resolving Indo-Pakistan bilateral disputes.
Manmohan Singh’s government in New Delhi has also taken some steps that no past government had dared to take. It has chosen to set aside its preconditions relating to terrorism that it attached to any initiative at normalisation. New Delhi has decided to forget the accusations by our interior minister and the various TV channels about how India was paying the Taliban to kill innocent Pakistanis and enabling the Baloch rebels with dollars to launch attacks in Balochistan. There was a time not long ago when Mr Krishna used to come to Islamabad asking for proof which was never forthcoming. India still wants Pakistan to do something about the elements that are responsible for the 2008 Mumbai massacre and has swallowed the acceptance of some proxy warriors in Pakistan that the world accuses of cross-border terrorism.
Mr Krishna has emerged as a most effective communicator during his visit, insisting that his government wanted a stable Pakistan. The government has given him extraordinary protocol, getting him to meet the president and the prime minister before his meeting with Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar. What he and his Pakistani counterpart have agreed upon will meet the approval of the main opposition party in parliament, the PML-N. Its leader, Mr Nawaz Sharif, has been announcing — in the face of disagreement from his conservative vote bank — that he would abolish a visa requirement with India after coming to power. He actually went further than anyone in Pakistan in consigning the perennial bilateral disputes to the post-normalisation era when he suggested that Pakistan should withdraw from Siachen unilaterally.
Once enforced, the new visa protocol will be transformational. Given the rise in India of an opulent middle class keen to travel as tourists, Pakistan will have to go on overdrive to build new facilities to cater to the new tourism despite its terrorism-marred conditions. New hotels and roads will have to be built for people coming by road, new border check posts in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Punjab and Sindh will have to be constructed to receive them. Pakistan will now find it easy to agree to a two-way transit trade route between Afghanistan and India, thus averting the losses it was sure to sustain from the opening of an alternative route through the newly-built Iranian port of Chabahar. The route that joins India and Afghanistan will ultimately be the regional commercial highway to Central Asia. One can hope that the project of the Iranian gas pipeline will be favourably affected by Indo-Pakistan normalisation.
The normalisation-first approach — favoured by the world but not by Pakistan — is going to facilitate the final resolution of bilateral disputes: Kashmir, Siachen, Sir Creek, Wullar Barrage and other water issues, and terrorism, etc. Above all, Pakistan, once assured of peace on its eastern border, will be better able to confront al Qaeda and its ancillary terrorists like the Taliban, the Lashkar-e-Jhangvi and Jandullah without relying on the subterfuge of blaming India. Pakistan will cease to be the national security state preying on its own people and will be better able to align its national economy with the well-being of its people.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 9th, 2012.
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