Indo-Pak Visa Imbroglio: Between the States’ Power and People’s Desire

“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

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Pakistan – The Country of My Friends

Indo-Pak friends devika mittal (india) and aliya harir, saba khalid, namra nasir, raza khan (pakistan)

As I think of friendships across the border, my first memory goes back to the days of yahoo messenger, chatrooms and orkut! I would often visit the Pakistan chat room just out of curiosity. I can’t recall if I had made any friend from there through this. I owe my first friend from Pakistan to Harry Potter! Though my memory is posing serious challenges but what I certainly remember that I was able to strike not one but several conversations with so much ease with this one friend from Pakistan. I don’t even know if this person will even remember me because we lost touch and it has been so many years now but I certainly remember my first friend from Pakistan and I thank him because I think that it was probably because of him that I never ever had any hatred for a Pakistani.

The second round of friendships came with my admission time and entry in South Asian University (SAU). I will want people to genuinely believe me that one of the things that I imagined about SAU and which motivated me to apply was meeting Pakistanis! My fascination was derived out of my new found understanding of our past, the horror of our past actually. On both sides, we are often exposed to very biased and one-sided accounts of what had happened. I had got the opportunity to explore that the horror was also shared by both sides and I was filled with guilt and remorse. It makes me emotional everytime I think about what we did to each other. It disturbed me and I could not think of a way to make things fine. The only thing that came to my mind was to probably reach out to the “other”. I had befriended a Pakistani student aspirant during admission time and though he never joined the university, we became friends! His name was Zeeshan and as again my memory challenges me, I can’t remember much details. But what I clearly remember is that how when we started sharing photographs of our cities and when I saw photographs of a Pakistani city (forgetting which city it was..but I think it was Islamabad), I said “Yaar ye to foreign country lag rai hai” (This looks like a foreign country) and he laughed and said that yes it is foreign indeed.. it is Pakistan! I think this explains how our bond was. I had forgot the “difference”!

In the university with students from all 8 SAARC countries, the bonding was strongest with Pakistani students primarily because we spoke the same language. I also always feel that when Indians and Pakistanis meet, they are very extra sweet to each other! I somehow think it is because we carry the past baggage for which we try to make up for.  

My third and strongest round of friendships have come with Aaghaz-e-Dosti. It has helped me to not only get such close friends but actually family members across the border! I must reiterate that I do not like to write fancy and do not exaggerate. Visiting Pakistan for me solely meant visiting my friends. Because of the conflict and a culture of stereotypes and mutual suspicion, when we travel to Pakistan or a Pakistani travels to India, he/she is given many unwanted advices. People would say that they pray that we will come back alive. When I went to Pakistan, I also had such concerned friends in India. I must say that not even for one second, did I feel scared. Infact, I felt so much scared when I was to travel to Europe. With Pakistan, I did not feel any such feeling. I attribute this to my friends and “family” in Pakistan. My birthday was a day prior to my travel to Pakistan but I celebrated a second birthday in Pakistan. All thanks to Namra. I had really not imagined it and I don’t think I ever got a bigger birthday surprise than that in my life. There is a lot more that my beautiful, bold and so hard working friend did for me which I am not sure if I can ever return. My elder brother Raza bhai was I think on his heels during the entire trip. I don’t think I can ever say enough about how good he is. I was taken such good care by my two elder sisters – Safia didi and Summi didi. Then there were some non-Lahoris without whom my trip to Pakistan would have been incomplete. The time that I spent with the Pashto Poet-Philosopher Rauf, adorable Imrana, charming but very mischievous Huma and ofcourse Aliya without whom I cannot even imagine my daily life was when I secretly was so angry thinking about the culture of hatred and conflict that has been constructed. I had also got the opportunity to make so many new friends. While it is always customary to talk good about one’s hosts and for the right reasons that they really try so hard to get you across the border, I want to talk about the two university hosts for the bond that they had initiated which they were not compelled to. They were not compelled to wait for us hours before our arrival on the Wagah Border. They were not compelled to invite us to their home, invite us to meet their family members. Though I really feel guilty of not having done so and wish that the offer was not of limited time period, I was deeply moved by such a gesture. I had also got another new very wonderful friend named Zeeshan whom again I did not know previously but who really made sure that I didn’t ever feel alone. While I take a lot of time to talk freely with new people, I feel that he really broke that bubble so instantly through his friendly and humble nature. I met Dr. Wasif Ali Waseer who took out time from his busy schedule to be with us throughout the two days and had also made us met his really lovely wife Saba and with whom I bonded over some Indian serials.  While I think of all this, I am also reminded how these are all supposedly my enemies who were supposed to hate me. 

Pakistan means a lot to me and the reason are my friends and I have all kinds of friends, I should say. I have friends who are as good as family. I have brothers like Umair Bhai, Raza Bhai, Mujtaba, Adil, Zuhaib, Jahanzeb, younger brothers like Hussain, Syed Zeeshan Ali Shah, Faizan, Owais, sisters like Nazzia didi, Saba, Natasha, Imrana, Warda, Zoya, Suraya and very adorable younger sisters – Fatima and Mahrosh. I have friends like Poonamchand, Warda, Faisal and Asad on whom I can always depend on. I have found friends like Ashraf, Sehyr, Shabbir, Zeeshan Ahmed and Saif with whom I can engage in discussions on even critical issues. Pakistan has given me friends, mentors, inspirations. It continues to bless me with friends. With this, I must mentioned my newest friend from Pakistan – Dr. Munir whom I met in a conference on Human Rights Education in Germany. The Conference had seen practitioners and scholars from different countries and while it was an honor to interact and learn from all of them, the interaction with the Pakistani participant was certainly very different. It didn’t take us even seconds to bond and the bonding became so strong that once I ended up counting 4 Indians in the conference (there were 3 Indians and 1 Pakistani).

My friendships have helped me to understand conflict, to understand it from different angles, understand the complexities and more importantly, on how futile the conflict is.

Role of People in Improving Indo-Pak Relations

indo-pak

Photo Source: Internet

While British India became independent and was divided into India and Pakistan for a more peaceful and saner future, we know that this is yet to be realized. Since separation, there has largely been a culture of war and extreme hatred. In these 67 years, there have been 4 major wars, countless ceasefire violations and indirect clashes suffered by divided families, prisoners and fishermen.

Yet, there exists a very pessimistic attitude towards peace. It has also been reduced to an issue of mockery. Working to improve relations is seen as passive and futile. Also, these views emanate not from the stakeholders but from the common masses in both countries. There is
not just a pessimistic attitude but also a severe questioning of it, especially on times of a clash. During any disturbance, the peace groups and activists are targeted. They are rendered accountable. Their loyalty towards their country is questioned. They are asked to prove their love for their country by condemning the other. Their efforts are regarded to be futile and showy.

In general, there exists a view that war and peace are in the hands of those who have political power. What can you and me do about it? The conflict is regarded to be a conflict between the state heads, between New Delhi and Islamabad. Is this true? Do people have no role to play?

What is then the purpose of interactive sessions, seminars, public demonstrations and student exchanges?

Another view that anyone who advocates for peace witnesses is that there can be no peace unless we solve the core issue, the Kashmir or the K-issue. Is this the only way to establish peace?

While the two views regarding the state’s role and the need to resolve core issue are not wrong, they are narrow and insufficient. We use the term “peace process”. The word “process” signifies that peace, like any process, will come under certain conditions and through a systematic way. It will come under a certain culture. While peace and conflict definitely depends on the political head, the decision or the official policy is never in isolation with the views of the people. The states manufacture consent. There is a certain ideological culture that it manufactured to create as well as sustain the official policy. In our context, hatred for India/Pakistan has been manufactured and sustained. There exists a culture of hatred and suspicion on both sides of the border. Both sides have constructed their own stereotypes and misconceptions. These have been aggravated, if not carefully constructed, by the lack of communication and by miscommunication. Both sides believe that they are right and the other is wrong. Both sides think the other does not want peace, the other is unjust and cruel.

These misconceptions are used to justify clashes. The state and public opinion cannot be said to be in isolation with each other. Both affect and influence each other. It was the public anger that killed Sarabjit Singh and Sanaullah Ranjay. It is public opinion that determines the action and ‘reaction’ on the borders. If we talk about issues of prisoners and fishermen, it is not just the state but the people’s biases (as prison guards, advocates and judges) that aggravate their sufferings. Thus, it is essential that a culture of peace, respect and understanding is established. People need to become sensitive and need to realize the importance of peace for a better future. They need to realize that the other, like them, wants peace and friendship. It is also this culture that will contribute to resolving of core issues. In the present scenario of jingoism, opinions are only classified as “pro-Indian” and “anti-Indian” or “pro-Pakistani” and “anti-Pakistani”, not in a rational way. They are not seen from a human perspective. It is the culture of peace that will motivate them to think rationally and in a just manner. Peace needs to be created before being established.

Thus, people cannot be regarded to be passive agents. The people of both countries need to take charge for a better future. 

This article got published on The Pakistan Today and CSS Current Affairs Pakistan website

Photo Source: http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/multimedia/dynamic/01261/indo-pak_jpg_1261225g.jpg

Kashmir: A People and Region torn between Two Maps

It was in the 18th-19th century, in the British period, that cartography came to India. It was in this period that a map was drawn for India. It wasn’t simply a map – it had given British India a marked and formally recognised territory. Since then, India has been quite protective about it. So post-independence and partition, India had claimed all the regions that constituted the map of British India. It has also tried to extend it, make the map bigger. Today, India is among the largest nations, or rather one should say, India has one of the largest maps in the world.

But in its quest for a bigger map, India doesn’t seem to mind being inauthentic. It doesn’t mind having a map that does not reflect the reality. This points to the region of Kashmir that is actually a part of Pakistan. The region in question is what is called ‘Pakistan-occupied Kashmir’ in India and ‘Azad Kashmir’ in Pakistan. In the first India-Pakistan war (1947-49), Pakistan had conquered one-third of Kashmir. But still India has not recognised it. It has refused to make any changes in its big map. The entire Kashmir is shown as a part of India.

It seems to be a paradox as this is the same India which has created such an uproar about Arunachal Pradesh being shown in the map of China. While India cannot tolerate Arunachal Pradesh being shown in the map of China, it has parts of Kashmir that are formally with Pakistan.

So how does one read this? For this, we must look at the importance that any country attaches to the map. The map is an epitome of a nation-state. It marks its territorial sovereignty. Maps are serious and sensitive pieces of paper. India, like other countries, attaches a high value to it. For India and Indians, the map of India is and should be fixed. Any change in it would mean the collapse of the entire nation-state. Failing to reflect the reality post the India-Pakistan war of 1947, shows this sentiment. The unchanged map serves to reflect the notion that India was, is and has to be, a unitary and bounded nation-state, even though it is just an illusion.

The unchanged map shows India’s refusal to accept or acknowledge that some parts of Kashmir were conquered over by Pakistan. The use of the word “occupied” in “Pakistan-occupied Kashmir” also shows that India considers Kashmir to be a part of India. In such a scenario, can India and Pakistan really resolve the Kashmir issue? When India has already claimed Kashmir to be its part, what solution can they arrive at?

The world atlas reflects the reality. It shows Azad Kashmir and the region of Gilgit-Baltistan as part of Pakistan. But India is adamant about it, as though if it doesn’t change its map the reality would change. Speaking of reality, beyond these imaginary boundaries lies the reality of a terrible life that people in Indian Kashmir live, or rather, survive. In the name of protecting the ‘sovereignty’ of the nation, Kashmir is ruled by draconian laws like the Armed Forces Special Powers Act (AFSPA) and Public Safety Act (PSA) which has changed the meaning of ‘normalcy’. The ‘normal’ in Kashmir is characterised by heavy militarisation, check-posts on every corner of the street, fake encounters, torture and rape. Kashmiris live in the shadow of guns. They live with the constant threat to their lives and honour. This seems to be the cost that they are incurring to keep the map of India intact.

It is tragic that people seem to be more concerned about the map than about the people inhabiting the region. The unchanged map also points out that there remains a possibility that India may try to recover the territories that were taken over by Pakistan. But in this ongoing struggle over the maps, who is suffering? What is at stake? It is not the map, not the nation, but common lives. It is time that India should leave this hypocrisy and reflect the reality in the map. The entire Kashmir is not a part of India and in the part that is, India should respect the inhabitants of the land, and not the land. Life is more important than a map. Let there be peace. If it is the question of being fair, let the people of the land decide for themselves. Let them re-draw the map if they have to. Kashmir is not just a territory to be acquired; it is not just a barren land, a battle field and a mere location on a map. It is a region with human lives. 

This article was published on South Asia Monitor and they have the copyright.