July 05, 2020
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Train To/From Pakistan

If both India and Pakistan have easy travel regimes, they'll earn goodwill among ordinary citizens who may become a force for change.

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Train To/From Pakistan
Illustration by Saurabh Singh When Atal Behari Vajpayee and Pervez Musharraf meet in Agra, one elemental item should be on their agenda: travel between India and Pakistan. The India-Pakistan travel regime—the rules and conventions governing how we can legally visit each other—is confounding and enervating.

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:
  • Stop playing the reciprocity game: "We'll be more liberal with visas when the other side is more accommodating." One side has to be the "loss leader" on this in the sense of unilaterally setting the pace. Of course, as an Indian, I would prefer that India be that leader. My impression is that India has been somewhat more generous on visas over the years; but we can certainly go further.
  • Pakistan should dismantle its internal No Objection Certificate regime. Pakistani nationals, if they want to come to India (and only India, from what I know), have to get permission from their authorities! India has not gone that far but Indian intelligence keeps very close track of who goes to Pakistan and for what purpose, as I found out on one occasion six years ago when a very polite IB official called me at home just minutes after I picked up my Pakistani visa!! From his conversation I learned that there is an "informal" no-objection procedure in India as well.
  • Both countries should be prepared to issue different types of visas for the seven categories of people that I listed above. Why not, as we do for the nationals of other countries, have five-year visas with multiple entries, one-year visas for a specified number of entries, single-entry visas for a restricted period, and so on. By and large, we should err on the side of liberalism and issue the longer-term visas rather than the restricted ones.
  • Both countries should abolish police reporting, which makes absolutely no sense. The police in the two countries are quite nice to middle-class, English-speaking types like me who come visiting, but there is enough evidence to suggest that they are awful with the non-metropolitan kinds of people who come to India and Pakistan. The reporting procedure helps in no way in terms of national security and only propagates fear and loathing for one's hosts.
  • Why can't the two governments open more visa counters? It is truly sickening to see the crowds of visa applicants, who are harassed but also helped by touts, out in the scorching sun in front of the Pakistani High Commission. I know that neither country cares a hang about the comfort of ordinary citizens when they have to deal with the bureaucracy—just look at the appalling lack of chairs and benches in any government office in India—but the visa scene outside embassies is shocking here and in Pakistan.

    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.)
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