India-Pakistan foreign minister level talks, held recently in Islamabad (September 7-8, 2012) to review the bilateral process, were significant on two important counts. First, adoption of a long delayed liberalised visa regime which brought immense joy to many who were a 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 visa liberalisation constitutes an important facet of any bilateral relationship as it facilitates movement of people, encourages exchange of views, 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 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 on arrival for senior citizens is also highly commendable. Introduction of group tourism to encourage visits to common heritage sites in both the countries is another welcome measure which will help people to discover their commonalities and to connect with one another.
Similarly, the granting of multiple entry visas— one-year, five-cities multiple entry visa— to businessmen would help augment trade 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 visas for businessmen will further boost the process of economic engagement.
The two governments have also taken some other enabling measures in this regard. Restrictions on banks opening their branches on either side of the border 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 fromAmritsar to Lahore.
Restrictions on banks opening their branches on either side of the border 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.
However, so far as the issue of facilitating people to people contact through liberalised 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 respective Ministries of Home Affairs/Interior for grant of visa. Sometimes this process is lengthy and cumbersome. 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 a 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 then 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 liberalisation 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.
While the liberalised visa agreement, now signed, was long overdue, 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 one another’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 either on 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 writings 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 thus biases against each other are allowed to perpetuate. Only through closer 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 that 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. Relaxation of visa for scholars will also 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. In order to make the joint commission more effective, the 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 needs to be established to rewrite the history textbooks (especially inPakistan, but may be, also in India) to provide a balanced account of the history of the subcontinent. Many commentators in Pakistan have particularly expressed their concerns about the distortion and politicisation of history text books in their country. Such joint revaluation of history 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 recognised 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 normalisation with India forward.
Significantly, during his visit to Islamabad, the Indian Foreign Minister S. M. Krishna, apart from meeting his counterpart 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. Perhaps, there is a realisation slowly dawning upon the political forces in Pakistan that improved bilateral ties with India 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.