Can and should anything be done about the travel nightmare? A lot can be done, but only if the Indian and Pakistani governments are convinced that something should be done. The standard operating procedure of both governments is to be unhelpful and tedious. Why so? Why is letting in ordinary Indians or Pakistanis so dangerous?
There are two basic lines of thought among government (read intelligence) officials on this. The first is that a more liberal travel regime will allow all kinds of nasty subversives from the other side to come in under the guise of the ordinary tourists. The second argument is liberal travel rewards the enemy. Why let the citizens of the other side enjoy your hospitality when their government is trying to bring you down? Since we all get the governments we deserve, we're all implicated in their acts and can't claim innocence.
Neither argument is terribly convincing. Terrorists and other subversives typically don't depend on entry permits to commit their vile acts. Denying them visas will slow them down to be sure, but not much more. Denying a lot of innocent people visas has to be balanced against the gains of delaying a terrorist or two. In whatever way you do your sums, it doesn't add up. The goodwill of thousands of ordinary Pakistanis is worth more than complicating the travel plans of a spy or a terrorist.
Nor does the second argument bear much scrutiny. We don't always get the governments we deserve; sometimes they ride to power behind a cavalcade of tanks. A lot of ordinary Indians and Pakistanis who want to visit each other are guilty of very little except being powerless. To burden them with the crimes of their rulers is only to add to their many intolerable daily human burdens. Besides, these very same ordinary, ineffectual citizens may someday become a force for change, good change, in their societies. Why not have them well-disposed towards your country?
If there is little to the argument that we should have a draconian travel regime, what can be done to liberalise it?
As things stand, there is a whole range of potential travellers that India and Pakistan have to take into account. These include at least seven categories: those who want to visit families; those who go on religious pilgrimage; sportsmen and artists; those who are invited to conferences and for other academic purposes (e.g. short- or long-term fellowships); those who are engaged in ngo activity; business representatives; and tourists. Of these, it is only the first who are fairly regular and unhindered travellers. Even these people don't have an easy time, but can, if they persevere, triumph against illogic. The others face a labyrinth of difficulties, from clerical pettiness to police reporting.
Here are five things that should be done right away:
The time is ripe to end the Stalinist regime on travel. Unhindered travel may or may not make us good friends and solve the India-Pakistan quarrel; but it would certainly improve the lives of many Indians and Pakistanis.
(The author is a professor at the Jawaharlal Nehru University.)