By Smruti S. Pattanaik
India-Pakistan foreign minister level talks which were held recently in Islamabad (September 7-8, 2012) to review the bilateral process was significant on two important counts. First, adoption of a long delayed liberalized visa regime which brought immense joy to many who were facing lot of inconvenience in securing visa on both the sides of the divide; second, the revival of the joint commission that will look into new avenues of cooperation other than the already identified eight issues on which there is secretary level talks.
The liberalisation of visa constitutes the core of any bilateral relationship as it facilitates movement of people, encourages exchange of views and facilitates economic cooperation and most importantly contributes to lowering of the walls of distrust. The decision of India and Pakistan to liberalise visa procedures comes as a boon for the hundreds of divided families on both sides of the border. In fact, visa restrictions had created tremendous hardships for the families divided by partition. The provision of 45 days’ single entry visa for senior citizens is also highly commendable. Group tourism to visit the common heritage sites is another welcome measure which will help people to connect with each other.
Similarly, the granting of multiple entry visas to businessmen would help forge closer economic ties between the two countries. After Pakistan decided to work towards granting MFN status to India within a year, there has been substantial progress on bilateral economic relations, and relaxation of visa for businessmen will further boost the process of economic engagement.
The two governments have also taken some enabling measures in this regard. Restrictions on banks opening their branches on either side of the borer have been lifted. Two banks from Pakistan— the Habib Bank and National Bank— are going to open their branches in India and on the Indian side, the Punjab National Bank and Bank of India have evinced their interest to open their branches in Pakistan. The ban on investment has also been removed. India has agreed to provide tariff concessions to 264 items over the next three years and has agreed to transfer 500 MW of electricity from Amritsar to Lahore. To augment the growing trade ties, one-year five-cities multiple entries visa has been introduced.
However, so far as the issue of facilitating people to people contact through liberalized visa regime is concerned, the visa agreement signed between India and Pakistan falls far short of popular expectations. For ordinary citizens, the states continue to tightly control the visa system and it is mandatory to get clearances from the Ministry of Home affairs/Interior for grant of visa. Sometimes this process is lengthy and cumbresome. In some cases, especially in Pakistan, visitors seeking Indian visa are questioned about their purpose of visit by intelligence officials posted in front of the Indian high commission in Islamabad. The fear of being tracked by ISI after applying for visa to visit India acts as a potential inhibitor for many scholars/analysts to come to India for academic interaction with their counterparts. In a particular case an invitee to a conference refused to take calls from the Indian High Commission which was processing her application lest she would be unnecessarily interrogated/ harassed by the ISI for getting in touch with the Indian embassy.
The process of mandatory reference to Home/Interior Ministry in case of persons invited for conferences needs to be simplified for facilitating interaction among scholars/analysts of the two countries without subjecting their applications to unnecessary bureaucratic delays. Moreover, the benefits of visa liberalization would be lost if such visitors are subjected to police reporting even if they are coming to attend a one or two-day conference. Treating such a visitor with suspicion and making it mandatory for her/him to report to the police upon arrival defeats the very purpose of relaxing visa to promote people-to-people contact. Given the slowly improving state of relations between the two countries, reporting of entry and exit for scholars should be made hassle-free.
While the liberalized visa agreement, now signed, was long overdue to step up bilateral ties, it is necessary to expand its scope further and create a separate category to facilitate exchange of academicians and researchers, which will go a long way in strengthening mutual understanding among the people about each other’s perspectives at unofficial levels. This will both supplement and reinforce the process of engagement at the official level.
At the moment, many researchers working on either Pakistan in India or on India in Pakistan rely on western sources for both data and analysis. This is evident from the lack of scholarly writing by Indian scholars on Pakistan and vice versa. Because of de facto official restrictions on such research and interaction the scholars lack first-hand experience and biases against each other are allowed to perpetuate. Only through close interaction the scholars of the subcontinent can overcome stereotypes about each other and develop a nuanced and objective view on issues affecting bilateral relationship. This will be another important confidence building measure (CBM) between the two countries.
As has been argued earlier, it is essential academic events like conferences, seminars, round tables and other such interactions should be waived of unnecessary scrutiny by intelligence agencies. In the era of information technology social networking sites have already broken the barrier of India-Pakistan divide as more netizens regularly exchange ideas over the internet. A coterminous policy of relaxation of visa for scholars will definitely arrest the process of ‘subtle subversion’ of common history and cultural values by vested interests who benefit from the promotion of enemy images of one country or the other.
Reactivation of the India-Pakistan Joint Commission in pursuance with the last Foreign Minister’s meeting in New Delhi this year is an important step forward.1 In order to make the joint commission more effective, two governments have identified eight areas of cooperation and established eight Technical Level Working Groups. These are (i) agriculture, (ii) education, (iii) environment, (iv) information, (v) health, (vi) information technology and telecommunication, (vii) science and technology, and (viii) tourism.
Under the aegis of the joint working group on education, a joint commission need to be established to rewrite the history textbooks (especially in Pakistan, but may be, also in India) to provide a balance account of the history of the subcontinent. Many commentators in Pakistan have particularly expressed their concerns about the distortion and politicization of history text books in their country. This will help change mindsets and create a condition for peaceful relationship between the two countries.
It is assumed that the state of relations between the two countries would not change drastically overnight. It needs to be recognized that improvement of relations is going to be gradual and there will be many spoilers on the way, especially the right wing forces in Pakistan backed by sections within the army. There is also a fear amongst the analysts both in India and Pakistan that the military is fast losing its control over the militant groups and it may not be possible for it to stop these elements from conducting high profile subversive attacks against India. In this situation, if Pakistan does not want any further derailment of talks, it has to demonstrate its sincerity and commitment to push the process of normalization with India forward.
Significantly, during his visit to Islamabad, the Indian Foreign Minister S. M. Krishna, apart from meeting his counterpart Ms Hina Rabbani Khar, had audiences with the leaders of prominent Pakistani political parties including PML-N, the main opposition party, which has staunchly backed the process of dialogue with India. There is belief amongst the political forces in Pakistan that improved bilateral ties will reduce the salience of the Army in Pakistani politics and strengthen the foundations of democracy. This gives rise to hopes that the rhythm and tempo of bilateral bonhomie may continue beyond the upcoming general elections in Pakistan, even if there is a change in the government.
1. It has to be remembered that India-Pakistan Joint Commission was initially established in 1983 to provide impetus to economic cooperation between the two countries. It stopped functioning in 1989, when the relationships between the two countries plummeted in the wake of rise of militancy in Kashmir. It was restarted in 2005 as bilateral relationship picked up during Musharraf’s rule, but could not quite gather momentum in the backdrop of political tumult in Pakistan since 2007 and especially after the 26/11 attacks.
Originally published by Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (www.idsa.in) at http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/IndiaPakistanForeignMinistersMeet_sspattanaik_170912