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What is behind the reciprocal restrictions on visas by India and Pakistan ?

by Urvashi Butalia, 2 July 2010

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The News International, 2 July 2010

Even in death

A friend once told me a strange story about visas. Her uncle, an Indian married to a Pakistani and working in a third country, died in a country he was visiting on business. The question his family faced: where would he be buried? The natural choice was India, his home country, but then his wife and son would be unable to come. After many unsuccessful attempts to get them visas, the extended family decided to take the only other option and bury the man in a ’neutral’ country. Borders followed him, even in death. Another friend, Tanveer Ahmed, a young man living in London, discovered one day that his 80-year-old grandmother, once a Hindu, still had a brother in their home village in Indian Kashmir. He thought he would try to take his grandmother, 16 at the time of Partition, to Kashmir to meet her brother. He spent four years trying to get her a visa. The reunion was spectacular and deeply emotional.

There are hundreds of such stories. You don’t need to go in search of them – just make a trip to the Pakistan High Commission in India, and look at the crowds lining up for visas. "We issue 500 visas a day," a visa officer once told me, "more than any other embassy. And a visa costs only Rs15.00." It’s a long time since I got one, so the costs may have gone up, but something about the price of the visa underlines the understanding, on the part of the state, that there are many, many people who want to make that particular crossing.

And yet, there are restrictions on visas. It’s difficult to understand what they achieve, other than more distance, more coldness, more suspicion. Political games, diplomatic initiatives and brush-offs are normal in the geo-political scenario, but at a people-to-people level, the realities are different. Particularly between India and Pakistan. People want to cross over to see relatives, to visit old homes, to share stories, music, theatre and films, to talk across borders and basically to take part in all the normal activities that make up the groundwork for peace.

It’s important to remember that people-to-people initiatives for peace have played no small role in keeping up the momentum for talks between the two countries, even in the wake of 26/11. Then, the first initiative for peace came from a delegation of Pakistanis who visited India and spoke widely on the need for restraint and joint investigation. If people in countries that see themselves as "enemies" continue to interact normally, the bedrock of peace has already been laid and it becomes much easier to build upon it.

It’s difficult to understand the fears that governments have – while there may be the occasional high-profile case such as David Hadley, most terrorists do not take the legitimate visa route. Rather, they try to leave no trail at all, or as minimal as possible. Immigration stamps and other visa formalities do not allow for this.

And yet, 60 years after the event, here we are, refusing to give the citizens of our countries visas that will enable them to travel freely, often keeping people in doubt till the very last minute, requiring them to report to the police when they enter and leave any place and issuing visas only for cities, not the country! If you enter a Schengen state, you have access to all. At the other extreme, are India and Pakistan, where we cannot even imagine being tourists, conducting historical explorations, or doing research.

I first travelled to Pakistan many years ago to visit my family there, and being part of various people-to-people initiatives I’ve been able to go back several times. But no member of my family has as yet been able to visit India. Why? Because they want to come as tourists, to visit Agra, Ajmer, Jaipur, Ooty, but that’s just not on, it’s not a ’legitimate’ activity. Sometimes it’s difficult to believe that we are living in the 21st century.

Urvashi Butalia is the director and co-founder of Kali for Women publishers.