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Plight of the divided

Publication Date : 24-05-2012


News reports indicate that a "liberalised" visa agreement is due to be signed by the interior\home secretaries of Pakistan and India soon in Islamabad.

The focus will be on easing travel restrictions for the business community, while divided families, senior citizens and those wishing to attend weddings or funerals in the other country will also reportedly get more lenient treatment from the visa-issuing authorities.

For those who belong to divided families and all those who wish for peace to prevail in the subcontinent, this comes as great news, for the current visa regime — especially following the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks — is highly illiberal.

However, knowing the hawkish stance of both security establishments as well as the inflexible nature of the subcontinental bureaucracy, one will believe it when one sees it.

While politicians, professional peaceniks and those with the right connections can visit the other country with relative ease, for the common citizen the visa process is nothing short of a nightmare, seemingly designed to discourage people from applying.

A quick overview of the requirements of both countries for a visitor’s visa will help put things in perspective. As per Pakistan High Commission’s website in Delhi, Indians wanting to visit Pakistan are required to submit, along with the visa form, supporting documents and 15 rupees (US$1 = 92.21 rupees) visa fee, the copy of computerized national identity card (CNIC) of the Pakistani sponsor. The requirements for Pakistanis wanting to visit India, however, are a little more complicated.

The website of the Indian High Commission in Islamabad advises Pakistani nationals wanting to visit India to do the following: all previous passports must be attached, unless the current passport is stamped with an Indian visa. If any one of the applicant’s previous passports is not attached, an affidavit and copy of an first information report must be submitted. How easy is this requirement, say, for a well-travelled septuagenarian, one must ask.

A "sponsorship certificate" attested by an authorised Indian official from the sponsor in India “taking responsibility of the bona fide and good conduct of the Pak nationals” must be attached along with an “antecedents/bona fide certificate” issued by the Pakistani police. Anyone who has tried to obtain a “character certificate” from the local police knows that even if one is a model citizen, it’s a difficult exercise unless palms are greased.

The Indian authorities also require a CNIC copy with an English translation. Surely the Indian civil service must have officers conversant with Urdu. Pakistani utility bills must also be submitted, along with a no-objection certificate if you are a government employee, or a letter from your employer stating who you are and what you do if you are in private service. Utility bills from your host in India must also be attached.

While the minimum processing time is 15 days, passports are gone for months on end, with no indication whatsoever about whether the application is being positively considered.

It is as if one was preparing for an audience with God. But while the Almighty is forgiving, bureaucrats are not. The Pakistani requirements, when compared to India, seem almost progressive.

If officials from both sides really want to do something, they should dismantle this draconian regime and simplify the application process. Nearly all those this writer talked to — former diplomats, human rights activists, journalists and ordinary citizens — agreed that the process can be simplified if both establishments desire it. Ordinary people are intimidated by these cumbersome requirements, dictated by the respective security establishments.

Terrorism is a genuine concern. However, undesirable elements can be filtered out without putting all applicants — from infants to senior citizens — through the same rigmarole, while if the authorities feel a certain individual is a security threat, they can be denied entry. Needless to say, terrorists don’t use the front door and security agencies should focus their energies elsewhere.

The generation that witnessed the partition and migrated will soon be gone. Those who want to visit their ancestral areas before meeting their Maker, along with their descendants, are being punished by this tough visa regime. What interest do businessmen have in visiting the other side, other than doing business? The restrictions isolate those who have blood relations across the border. They serve to strengthen hate lobbies in both countries who despise peace and thrive on confrontation. Both governments need to end this apartheid and let people meet.

As a Pakistani whose ancestral town now lies on the "wrong" side of the border I and many others like me who have close blood relations in India, would want to visit the other side without any hassle, without having to fill out lengthy forms or obtain humiliating affidavits. We want to pray at the Sufi shrines our families have been attached to for centuries, visit our ancestral homes and offer fateha at the graves of our ancestors. Surely we are not endangering national security by demanding this.

We want visa-on-arrival or visa-free travel between India and Pakistan, an end to police reporting and limits on the number of cities one can visit, as well as increased road, sea and rail links so that the common man can travel easily and not have to pay exorbitant airfares. I dream of the day I am able to have an early breakfast in Karachi, hop on a bus, traverse the mighty wastes of Thar and be in Ajmer Sharif in time for a late dinner. I don’t know if this will be possible in my lifetime, or ever.

However, one thing I do know is that if the generals, bureaucrats and, to a lesser extent, politicians of India and Pakistan desire, anything is possible.

The writer is a member of staff.


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