A liberalised visa regime will benefit Pakistanis more than Indians
Since September 2001,if not earlier,heavy visa restrictions have been imposed on Pakistan and other countries that feature on the terror map. One envies Indian friends and colleagues,who can get multiple-entry,10-year visas to a number of countries. For Pakistanis,even those considered bona fide citizens,getting a visa to most countries borders on the impossible. In such a scenario,the easing of visa restrictions announced after the recent meeting between Pakistans foreign minister,Hina Rabbani Khar,and her Indian counterpart,S.M. Krishna,is a welcome step towards a more liberal visa regime.
Pakistanis applying for a visa anywhere have to wait weeks or even months,never mind if they are academics,professionals or businessmen. Most often,it is Pakistani men who are subjected to the additional processing and screening. Since 9/11,processing delays,along with the extensive application forms,have become the bane of Pakistanis who want to travel to any other country. Until the Mumbai attack of 2008,India was an exception.
Once president Pervez Musharraf did a volte face,first after Kargil and then after the Agra summit,Pakistanis could get visas to India much more easily than they could to other countries. Nepal and Sri Lanka offered visas on arrival and a couple of east Asian countries were also more accessible,but India was always the preferred destination for most Pakistanis. The India-Pakistan cricket matches and the Page Three visits of the last decade almost made it seem as if the two countries were real neighbours,in spite of all the unresolved differences. Visas were easily available,at least for Pakistanis,and the only hassle one had to endure was Pakistani spooks outside the Indian high commission in Islamabad asking irrelevant questions. Indians coming to Pakistan faced more challenges.
In fact,any visa regime between the two countries will benefit Pakistanis more than Indians. More Pakistanis want to visit India than the other way round,with the possible exception of Indian Sikhs keen on going to holy places in Pakistan. A large number of Pakistanis,both Punjabi- and Urdu-speaking,who migrated between 1947 and 1952,have ancestral ties and associations with lands that are still in India. Apart from these connections,there are numerous Pakistanis who would want to visit India like other regular visitors as tourists,on business,for pilgrimages. Often,they just want to enjoy being in a place where the language and culture are far more familiar than in countries farther afield,at least in north India.
Understandably,since November 2008,and especially since David Headley was identified as one of the key operatives behind the Mumbai attacks,it has been near impossible for Pakistanis,even well-connected ones,to get a visa for India. Compared to the pre-2008 period of visitor exchanges and cricket matches,the last four years have been troubled and disheartening for those who have worked for and believed in an India-Pakistan future that was friendly and open.
The recent agreement between the two foreign ministers is a big step forward. It provides for eight new categories of visas,giving concessions to Pakistani businessmen and to those over 65. All these measures have already been hailed by the business community and civil society in Pakistan. However,factors such as processing time,scrutiny,and other general hassles,will determine the efficacy of the new visa regime. The initial sentiments in both countries are highly positive; one hopes the liberalised visa agreement will be implemented in the same spirit.
Moreover,the new visa regime will need solid support structures to make it workable. Just one Indian or Pakistani high commission in the capital handling all the visa applications will give rise to bureaucratic delays. For a start,both countries need to open many more consulates,especially in the cities where they expect the most applications. There must be more flights linking Pakistans three main cities to Kolkata,Mumbai,New Delhi and Chennai. The announcement of the Islamabad-New Delhi flight is a beginning,but alas,Indian visitors who want to go to Lahore will no longer be able to do so unless they get a special visa for it.
However,the main problem with moving forward on visa regimes,or with trade and cricket ties,is not the bureaucratic resistance to change but actors on the Pakistani side who have disrupted all peace (and visa) processes in the past. The freedom of Pakistanis to visit India is inextricably linked to the political economy of Pakistan.
The author is a political economist based in Karachi and visiting professor at Columbia University,New York