India and Pakistan have a reciprocal relationship. If one does something to the other, like sending back a spying diplomat for instance, the other imitates this and also sends one back. One country’s visa regime mirrors the other’s. We would rather harm ourselves by an act that is imitative than let the other side get away. The world sees this behaviour as childish — perhaps, rightly so.
India acted maturely in opening up trade unilaterally a few years ago. This is why the shelves of Thom’s Cafe and Bakery, where I shop for groceries in Bangalore, are filled with Shan Masala boxes.
Now, an opportunity exists for Pakistan to take the lead.
Islamabad should open up its borders and give Indian tourists visas on arrival — the same conditions under which Indians are allowed into Sri Lanka, Nepal and Bhutan. A quick stamp on the passport and that’s it.
Vast crowds of Indians will come to Pakistan.
Sikhs on pilgrimage to Nankana Sahib and to see Ranjit Singh’s mausoleum (totally empty when I went there 10 years ago) next to the Lahore Fort. Hindus who want to see the Indus, after which their country is named, and their faith. Muslims and Hindus who want to visit Pakpattan, Data Saheb and the shrines of Rukn-e-Alam and Bahauddin Zakariya.
Pakistanis will be amazed by how many Hindus worship at Muslim shrines. Punjabis will come and see the cities of Lahore and Rawalpindi, of which they have only heard about from their grandparents. India’s wealthy Sindhi community will come to Sukkur, Hyderabad and Karachi.
Three Muslim communities — Memons, Bohras and Khojas — have their headquarters in India. They have family ties to Karachi and also business interests that will benefit from regular visits. Deoband and Nadwa scholars can exchange views with Pakistan’s ulema.
The package tour business, which is big in India, will bring in large numbers who might see a Pakistan different from the one in their imagination. College and school excursions, which are also big in India, will find new venues to take their students to.
Bollywood will be interested in new settings to shoot and access to the cities will open up plot lines.
As an intelligent piece in The Friday Times noted a few years ago, Indian tourists will blend in, dress modestly, not expect too much, be at home with the food and do shopping on a healthy scale.
The exchange rate of the Pakistani rupee, whose value is a little over half of that of the Indian rupee, will give them a bigger budget than they have at home.
The Hindu middle class, especially Bengali and Gujarati, are adventurous travellers and will not be easily put off by a couple of bomb blasts as Westerners will. Because Indian women are not secluded, whole families will come, especially if non-aeroplane routes such as road and rail are opened. Pakistanis will not be threatened by middle-aged Indian men and women with squealing kids about them.
It will not be possible, given the mischief in Mumbai and in Parliament, for India to freely let Pakistanis enter. So, reciprocity must not be expected immediately. But that shouldn’t be seen as a problem.
Pakistan has already accepted a break in the tit-for-tat relationship. Pakistan’s cricket team is likely to play in India while there’s no chance that India’s players will come to Pakistan. No other cricketing nation is willing either and so it’s not about Indian obstinacy in this case. Just the circumstances, which can be altered by a little wisdom.
It’s a profitable opportunity for Pakistan to benefit economically, improve its image as a safe place and normalise relations with India. Three things gained while nothing is lost.
Pakistan should open itself up to Indians without waiting for reciprocity. And it should do this in self-interest.
Published in The Express Tribune, July 29th, 2012.