Whether the Khans of Bollywood or the Singhs of Punjab, the leisure traveller or the Gulf-bound worker—most Indians contend with passports and visas. Why then the hoopla over the India-Pakistan visa agreement penned by ministers S.M. Krishna and Rehman Malik?
The need for travel documents is as old as civilisation itself. The earliest passport-like document dates from the Persian Achaemenid Empire, circa 5th century BC Shakespeare’s Henry V declares: “...he which hath no stomach to this fight, let him depart; his passport shall be made....” The mushrooming railway network in Europe in the 19th century facilitated continental travel. The French abolished passports in 1861, unable to monitor/control ‘aliens’ entering France or citizens headed abroad. It presaged the Schengen visa-free arrangement of today amongst 22 European Union members. But outside their region even they need passports and visas, except the Queen of England, who, as the granter, is said not to need one!
The First World War and concern over spies revived passport and visa regimes. Post WWII and decolonisation, the shutters began coming down in developed countries. Even the UK, despite enveloping its former colonies in the Commonwealth’s embrace, soon started filtering out potential asylum-seekers, unskilled workers etc. Its reluctance to admit Asians banished by Idi Amin from Uganda, despite commitments, ill behoved its reputation.
India adopts a differentiated approach in its neighbourhood. With Nepal and Bhutan, travel is visa-free. The Bangladesh border is porous, causing demographic impact on contiguous Indian regions. Pakistan was always a case apart. The need for people-to-people contact is invoked periodically. Pakistan’s security apparatus dreads it. After all, the fiction of a diabolical India evaporates when a Pakistani crosses from Wagah to Attari. The fault is, however, evenly shared. Both countries restrict visitors to specific cities, compel them to report to police, and have intelligence sleuths harass their hosts.
Globally the 9/11 attacks in the US and, for India, the 26/11 carnage handed restrictive visa and travel policies to the neo-cons in the West and their kindred souls in South Asia. David Headley, born to a Pakistani father, reared in the US and his soul possessed by jehad, is a representative nightmare for border control regimes. The response of the Indian home ministry was draconian. They withdrew the residual discretionary powers of granting visa (to even eminent Pakistanis) from the Indian heads of mission, made all cases of Pakistanis prior reference and all actual and assumed Pakistanis suspect. For my son’s wedding, his London-residing Pakistani friend Amir, his wife and little daughter got visas months after the event.
Most countries are making visas and passports biometric-compliant, requiring airlines to submit advance passenger data and profiling travellers. The India-Pakistan duel exceeds such rationalisation. The almost successful Times Square bomber was a US citizen. Kasab and his accomplices too entered Mumbai not on visas. MHA needs smarter policies that combine safety and security of India with non-paranoid, visitor-friendly regimes, including for Pakistanis. PM Manmohan Singh visualised having breakfast in Amritsar, lunch in Lahore, and dinner in Kabul. A dream perhaps, but the new visa regime hopefully is a step towards it.
K.C. Singh is former head of the Consular, Passport and Visa division; E-mail your columnist: kaycee_48 AT yahoo.com