Curtain raiser: Milne Do (Let Indians & Pakistanis Meet)

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My curtain raiser in The News today about the new Milne Do campaign launched by Aman ki Asha, the peace initiative between the Jang Group of Pakistan and The Times of India Group.

Curtain raiser: Milne Do

The loudest lament heard at every single event organised by Aman ki Asha since the launch of this peace initiative on Jan 1, 2010: how difficult it is for Indians and Pakistanis to visit each other’s country given our obstructive, out-dated visa regimes. The loudest demand: let people meet.

While both high commissions have been very helpful in facilitating visas for Aman ki Asha events, we are aware that things are very different for ordinary citizens. The visa issue is an on-the-ground manifestation of the ongoing, low intensity conflict between India and Pakistan, and probably hurts people at the grassroots level more than any other fallout of this state of hostilities. It is the single biggest hindrance to peace between us, the single biggest cause of misunderstandings and negative stereotypes about ‘the other’. If just this one issue could be resolved, people say, fifty per cent of the problems between us will be resolved.

While the Aman ki Asha initiative intends to campaign for peace between the two countries by discussing all contentious issues, we feel that advocating an easier visa regime is probably the single most important objective to campaign for. We are therefore initiating a campaign arguing for easing the visa process; doing away with the totally unnecessary requirements to enter and exit from the same point (and using the same mode of transport), report to the police within 24 hours of arrival and departure and be restricted to one city, or up to three cities, only.

Other hurdles include irritants like cumbersome application procedures demanding onerous proofs. Those living in areas far from the capitals where Pakistan and India have their consulates, face difficulties in submitting their applications, as the Mumbai and Karachi consulates, closed down years ago, are yet to re-open.

We believe it is time our governments made things easier for their people and paid heed to the desire expressed at so many people’s forums. We don’t even allow tourist visas to each other. Our journalist protocol permits only two reporters from each country to work in the other. Even American journalists find it hard to get visas to India if they are of Pakistani origin, and vice versa. India has recently initiated a six-week clearance period for conference visas. The Iron Curtain is further reinforced by the lack of roaming coverage for cell-phones across the border and the ban on television news channels (India doesn’t even allow Pakistani sports or entertainment channels, or live uplinks from India to Pakistan).

The city-specific visa restriction gives rise to absurd situations. Example one: the Pakistan head of IBM, in India for the Aman ki Asha economic conference recently, had a visa only for Delh, and couldn’t even visit the IBM office in Noida, an outlying town that was part of Delhi until a few years ago. Example two: an Indian employee of a multinational company visiting Pakistan on the invitation of the company’s Pakistan office headquartered in Hub, Balochistan, was arrested when he returned from Hub to Karachi to report to the police, as he didn’t have a visa for Karachi.

It takes 30 minutes to drive to Amritsar from Lahore, barely an hour to fly from Karachi to Mumbai – distances far shorter than between Lahore and Karachi or Delhi and Mumbai. Yet Lahore-Amritsar or Karachi-Mumbai might as well be on the opposite ends of the planet, given the effort required to get there.

These hurdles are making our people virtually strangers to each other, despite the commonalities of language, culture, music, food, history. Even worse, due to incessant conditioning and propaganda at various levels, many see each other as aliens or even enemies — to the extent that when young Indians and Pakistanis meet each other for the first time, usually in a third country, they are taken aback to discover their similarities. If a 10-year old daughter of Indian migrants to Australia finds it hard to accept that her Pakistani teacher speaks ‘Hindi’, this is also the case with older college or university students and professionals.

Given the concerns about security, we are not at this point advocating for the ideal European Union-like situation where you no longer need visas and passports to cross the border. But why should the governments not consider granting multiple entry visas for, say three months, six months, a year or three to five years, even ten, after satisfying themselves regarding an applicant’s identity and bona fides, like the United States or Great Britain do? If not for all applicants, then at least for business people, journalists and senior citizens.

Until then, may we suggest that the governments allow a meeting point at border areas like Lahore-Amritsar, Khokrapar-Munabao, and Muzafarabad-Srinagar. Aman ki Asha is willing to finance a pilot project for this purpose at Wagah border — a state-of-the art, comfortable, safe facility, a convention-cum-visitors’ centre, where people can go without visas, for a few hours by appointment to meet family or conduct business.

Our suggestions are simple and doable; our goals, achievable:

* Grant country visas, not city visas, allowing multiple entries.

* End police reporting

* Don’t restrict travel to the same entry and exit points

* Allow tourist visas

* Grant visas on arrival, at least to senior citizens, businesspeople and journalists.

With the upcoming Saarc Home Ministers meeting on June 26th and the Foreign Ministers’ meeting on July 15th, this is as good a time as any to start our campaign requesting that the governments lift these outdated, unnecessary restrictions.

Join us. Send your experiences, aspirations and suggestions about ‘Milne Do – let people meet’.

amankiasha@janggroup.com.pk; http://www.amankiasha.com; http://www.twitter.com/amankiasha_1;
fax: +92-21-3221-5238, tel: +92-21-3221-5239
c/o Aman ki Asha, Al Rehman Building, I.I. Chundrigar Road, Karachi

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7 Responses

  1. Very informative and superb balanced analysis. You’ve summed up the situation and hit the nail on the head very well indeed!

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  2. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by beena sarwar and beena sarwar, Marvi Sirmed . Marvi Sirmed said: RT @beenasarwar: Thanks Dani @danifran Informative & superb analysis on visa situation bw #India & #Pakistan for #peace http://bit.ly/decb2z […]

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  3. […] This post was Twitted by MobisherLive […]

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  4. thanks Beena for putting the issues and basic solutions so clearly. Brilliant and timely!
    Good luck!

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  5. Oh, dear Beena, these are hard nuts to crack. As I said earlier at another thread what is needed is a trust creating ‘taweez’ to set the things moving positively.

    I had a great desire to see India, especially to see my Hindu and Sikh friends who had migrated to India and also to see Amritsar only 30 miles from Lahore wherefrom my in-laws had migrated during partitional riots. So I went to the High Commission of India to apply for the Visa to India. What I saw there baffled me. Luckily, in the lottery held to select the go-ins from among hundreds waiting in que, my number came soon and hopefully, I was called in, There I was presented to a clerk sitting behind dark glass shutter. He asked me whether I had visited India before. I said I was born in India. He asked where. I told him that I was born in West Punjab when it was in India and grew up there till I was young when India was truncated by partition leaving West Punjab to be a part of Pakistan. But he was not in a mood of further talk with me and asked me angrily to leave. I, however, kept on insisting for grant of visa and pestering to him for a cogent reason to refuse it. Thereupon he called security personnel to shove me out and they did it forcibly, much to my frustration.

    I was so frustrated by the behavior of the Commission staff that I began to think that why, after all, we get humiliated for getting a visa to India. Had our ancestors come to India through a visa? No, then why should we get so humiliated to visit that part of the country which we could once travel on Toofan Mail from Peshawar to Calcutta by simply buying a railway ticket only. Thinking this I went straight to the head office of LT which was then only one house away from our house. They asked me how they can help me. I told them that I wanted to go to India at any cost and wanted to know whether they could help in this regard only. They said, “No problem, get ready.” It was Ramazan then and I told them that I would consider their offer after Ramazan. They followed me after Ramazan , but I thought it better not to take advantage of their help, keeping my age in view, the risks involved and of considering other security and moral factors. As an alternative, I wrote an appeal to the then PM India, Mr. Gujral , for relaxation of visa restrictions, at least, for the senior citizens who were born as Indians and are now expiring. I was surprised when only after a few days the Indian Government announced much visa relaxations for Paky citizens above 65. A friend of mine who was eager to visit his birth place in Ludhiana and was to accompany me on my trip to India began repenting that he had got his date of birth recorded in official records wrongly to make him younger by three years and now he will have to wait about 6 months to be 65. We waited, but nothing happened on the ground as our enquiries revealed.

    One can only laugh at these restrictions as these can stop only those who desire to visit the neighboring countries legally. Otherwise a boarder stretching about 1500 miles can be crossed with impunity from anywhere. I once visited my son who was a doctor then in the rural dispensary at Sahjirah Pind in the district of Qasoor. This village is an enclave behind Khem Karan in India, linked with Pakistan only by a road. On the way I had an urge to make water. I stopped the car, sat on a small mud ‘bund’ indicating the boundry between the two countries and pissed on India, which I failed to visit legally as end of any hope to visit that country.

    I have lost all hope now. Though I could visit Qahira with its Pyramids, London, Moscow, Mashhad, etc., but how strange I could not visit Amritsar, the city of my in-laws once, only 30 miles away from Lahore.

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    • More than Beena’s article, I read T S Bokhari’s response and felt really bad. Being an Indian, I am pained to learn that one of my own country’s staff has behaved this way and sorry to T S Bokhari for that. Somehow, we (both countries I am guessing) are letting stupid paranoia to dominate every little issue. I still don’t understand why people-to-people interaction shouldn’t be there between the two countries. That would really help us bridge all our gap. It is probably time to say NO to these stupid bunch of monkeys posing as politicians on both side.

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  6. Thank you dear Krish for your kind comment on my post , which I just saw.

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