Since at least September 2001, if not earlier, along with some other Muslim countries, all located either on the arc of evil or somewhere on the terrorists’ map, it has become very difficult for Pakistanis to get visas to most countries. For Pakistanis, even those who are by all definitions bona fide citizens with no designs to disrupt air traffic or cause problems to their host country, including members of the Pakistani elite, getting a visa borders on the near impossible.
The wait to get a visa can be many weeks or even months, to most destinations, whether you are an academic, professional or business person. Last month, when members of the Pakistani elite were sending their children to the US and Canada to start their higher education, many fathers were not given visas in time to accompany their children. It is usually men, Pakistani men, who are subjected to additional processing and screening or extensive delays when they apply to visas to many countries. Since 9/11, these additional processing delays along with extensive application forms have become the bane of any Pakistani wanting to travel overseas. Until the Mumbai attacks of 2008, India was the exception.
Visas to India — after former General-president Pervez Musharraf’s volte-face following Kargil and Agra — were far easier for Pakistanis to acquire. For about three or four years, India was the preferred destination of many Pakistanis irrespective of class, gender or ethnicity. In the now-prehistoric good old days of cricket matches in the last decade, it almost seemed like Pakistan and India were neighbours, of course with differences and unresolved disputes of over six decades, but still willing to allow people to travel to each others’ countries. Visas were easily available, at least for Pakistanis, and the only hassle and obstacle one had to endure, were the Pakistani spooks outside the Indian High Commission in Islamabad asking irrelevant questions. Indians coming to Pakistan faced more difficult challenges.
In fact, any visa regime between India and Pakistan will benefit Pakistanis more than it will Indians. More Pakistanis will always want to visit India than the reverse traffic, with the possible exception of Indian Sikhs wanting to visit their holy places in Pakistan. With a very large Pakistani migrant population from undivided India which came in the period 1947-52, both Punjabi and Urdu-speaking, there are still ancestral ties and some sense of vague association to the lands which are in India. Apart from these connections, there are numerous other Pakistanis who would want to visit India like other normal visitors; as tourists, business people and for religious pilgrimages, and just to enjoy being in a different country where, at least in north India, language and culture are far more familiar than in other countries of the region or farther afield.
Understandably, since November 2008, and especially once David Headley had been identified as one of the key operatives in the Mumbai attacks, it has been near impossible for normal Pakistanis, even well-connected normal Pakistanis, to get a visa to visit India for a host of purposes, whether meetings, conferences or business purposes. Compared to the pre-2008 period of visitor exchanges and cricket matches, the last four years have been troubled, barren and disheartening for those who have worked for and believed in an India-Pakistan future which was friendly, open and allowed citizens to visit each others’ countries.
The initiatives announced last week at the India-Pakistan Foreign Ministers’ meetings in Islamabad, are a bold and appropriate first step in moving to a visa regime which better reflects the wishes and aspirations of many people, particularly Pakistanis who are bound to benefit far more than Indians in a liberal visa regime between the two countries.
There is no denying the fact that the eight new categories of visas are indeed a big step forward, especially allowing concessions to Pakistani business people and those over 65, and all these measures have already been hailed by the Pakistani business community and by civil society. However, the question of processing time, scrutiny and general hassles will determine the efficacy of the new visa regime. While Pakistanis can apply for visas to any country in the world, it is what happens after they apply, which has been cause for concern. One hopes that while the initial sentiment between India and Pakistan is highly positive, the actual implementation of the new liberalised visa agreement will also be so.
Moreover, given the interest by many Pakistanis to visit India — and vice versa — any developments on the new visa regime will have to have substantial support structures to make the scheme workable. Just one Indian or Pakistani High Commission in the capital handling visa applications is inefficient and will give rise to bureaucratic delays. For a start, both countries need to open many more consulates in the cities from where they are expected to receive applications. More flights are also needed between Pakistan’s three main cities to at least Kolkata, Mumbai, New Delhi and Chennai, to make the visa regime more realistic. The announcement of the Islamabad-New Delhi flight is a beginning.
The problems with moving forward on visa regimes or trade or cricket between India and Pakistan are not the difficult and bureaucratic resistance to change and the implementation of new processes, but actors on the Pakistani side who have disrupted all peace (and visa) processes in the past: Kargil, the Indian parliament attack, Mumbai. The ability and freedom of Pakistanis wanting to visit India is inextricably determined by the political economy of Pakistan.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 13th, 2012.
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