“Why can’t I visit the land of my forefathers?” This is a question that I have read in the eyes that would be gleaming in the reminiscence of the inherited memories and would eventually turn into gloom. They would sigh and express their desire to cross the border and live the memories but sadly, their emotions do not count as a “valid” reason for visa.
The partition of the subcontinent uprooted millions on both sides of the border.There were those who chose to migrate but there were also those who were not left with a choice to migrate. People were forced to abandon the house of their ancestors and escape to a new land where they had to begin life from scratch. They lost everything but there was something that could not be snatched from them, something that could not have been looted or murdered. These were the memories of their childhood, their house, the neighbourhood and of a life before the storm. These memories have a life of their own; they continued to live and were even passed down in inheritance. The second, third generation of migrants hope to relive the family memories. They wish to discover their roots but it is not easy for them. The tragedy of partition is followed by the tragedy of the visa regime. There is no tourist visa between India and Pakistan. They need a blood relative to be able to visit the land of their ancestors.
This is not to say that the blood relatives always have it easy. The visa policy, the procedure of application, the arbitrary norms and the South Asian bureaucracy have made sure that the pain of separation can never be forgotten.
Visa procedure is like a maze
While I do not fear going to Pakistan and would love to visit Pakistan at any opportunity but the one thing I do dread is the procedure to obtain a visa. Unlike the case in Pakistan, Indians cannot apply online for Pakistani visa. We have to go to the embassy and stand in the queue for hours and hours. There is no exaggeration here. When I had to apply for visa, there was a huge crowd outside the embassy and I got to know that it was nothing new. It was just a usual day at the high commission. While standing in the queue, I overheard many conversations. A lady had come from Bhopal to apply for visa and this was her third attempt to obtain a visa to visit her relatives. Since I don’t know her case, I am not sure if this is a norm for non-Delhi people though another reality is that one cannot be sure about any norm. The visa officer initially refused to accept my application because I had not followed the “absolutely important” guidelines which were not mentioned on the high commission website.
This is the case with both India and Pakistan. In the form given in the immigration center, the currency limit is mentioned but this information is not provided on the consular information portals. If someone is carrying more than the limit, what are they supposed to do with the money? Also, there is no mention of the extremely important fact that in the case of Pakistan, the host needs to come to receive the Indian guests as there are no taxis on Wagha border. This is unlike the case on the Indian side of the Wagha border (called Attari Border) where there are private taxis.
People rely on past travelers for information and this can be problematic. I was told by a past traveler that despite having the visa, I will need permission from another authority to cross the border on foot. I called at the high commission, the ministries but no one seemed to know anything. They did not even refute this. Finally, another traveler who had travelled more recently informed me that the rule had been changed.
There is so much stereotyping around the Indo-Pak visa. In India, it is widely believed that if you have the stamp of Pakistan on your passport then you cannot visit US. While I know people who have visited US after visiting Pakistan, I still can’t say if this is perhaps only a stereotype. The rules that govern the visa which are not mentioned anywhere also create a lot of panic among travelers. They don’t know what is legal, what is not. It is not like we require this panic because we anyway deal with a panic situation when we declare that we are going to cross the border.
Visa to counter stereotypes
‘Hope you come back alive’ is a typical reaction that I think travelers from both sides encounter when they announce that they are going to cross the border. Both Indians and Pakistanis have constructed stereotypes about each other. They have constructed a violent image of each other. They believe that the moment someone will find out that I am an Indian, they will harm me. People in both countries still seem to be living with ideas of what had characterised the environment during the partition. The moment I tell people that I have been to Pakistan, I am praised for my courage. This is followed by questions around how I was treated in Pakistan.
We need to ease the visa rules for these people. We need to have more and more people to cross the border and understand the truth that we are indeed the same people. While there is fear, for Indians Pakistan is a land of their great curiosity and vice versa. A more relaxed visa regime would work to counter stereotypes and misconceptions and contribute to peace between the two countries.
However, if we trace the evolution of visa regime, we will see that it is only becoming stricter. Rules keep changing but not for any good.
A draconian Visa Regime
India and Pakistan have many conflicts and visa seems to be an extremely important way to sustain them. Indo-Pak visa is susceptible to the political mood of the two countries. Any fluctuation in the relations and the first thing likely to be affected is the grant of visas.
The visa policy is anyway very vicious. As stated previously, there is no tourist visa. While it was agreed to be implemented, it has not been implemented till now. This means that you can only visit India or Pakistan if you have a host. Similarly, few years back, visa on arrival was introduced for senior citizens. However, the reality is that they still need an invitation letter. For visit visa which is granted strictly for personal visits, while Pakistani hosts require an affidavit, Indian hosts need to get the sponsorship certificate signed from a class A officer, the people at the top most level of government institutions. In the culture of hatred and suspicion that we live in, it should not be difficult to realise how tough it would be to approach anyone for attestation.
People who do not have blood relatives or friends with great contacts search for events and conferences as there is a conference visa. A conference may demand one of these two things or both – expertise and a lot of money. The visa rules regarding conferences have also changed. Any conference that involves Indians (Pakistanis for the Indian case) needs approval by the Interior Ministry. The ministry will also need to approve each of the participants. Without this approval, visas are not granted. This is rule for both sides. Besides this, there is pilgrim visa, business visa and journalist visa which are all confined to specific groups.
The story doesn’t end here. India and Pakistan feel the need to have even more bizarre visa rules. India and Pakistan seem to be the only two countries which grant city-specific visas to each other. This means that Indians and Pakistanis can only travel to cities for which they have visa. There is also a limit. They can be granted visa for a maximum of 5 cities. They would also need local hosts in all the cities they apply though sometimes people get visa for cities even if there is no local host. There are many more absurd rules that ensure that it indeed remains to be a dream to cross the border.
Restricting Visa, Restricting Peace
It is a tragedy that we don’t understand the importance of cross-border travel and interaction. For 70 years, we have been living in ghettos of hatred, suspicion, with memories of violence and this is what is sustaining the conflict. We need visa to break this cycle of hatred.
Visa remains to be the biggest hurdle in the peace process. The defendants justify everything under the name of “security concerns” but the fact is that even the most powerful yet scared country in the world does not have such strict and absurd visa restrictions. Also, what do we have the special police and investigation cells for? Moreover, our concerns for security should focus on becoming efficient rather than to resort to such draconian yet convenient solutions.
It is imperative that we realise the potential of a relaxed visa regime. It will even contribute for more prosperous economies. We need a more relaxed visa regime. We need to let people meet because when they meet, when they talk, the possibilities for a better future are endless.
This blog has been published on Dunya News