India /Pakistan – That elusive visa: You can’t just ‘Google it’

My article in The News’ weekly Aman ki Asha page today (also on the website and TOI blog)

"Ye mein, ye Yusuf"... That's me, that's Yusuf...

“Ye mein, ye Yusuf”… That’s me, that’s Yusuf… Still from Google’s “Reunion” ad

Google’s tearjerker “Reunion” ad released on the web has tapped into a rising groundswell for peace between the people of India and Pakistan

By Beena Sarwar

The internet search engine Google’s moving, beautifully made little video “Reunion”, released on November 13 has gone viral. In less than a week, the ad on Youtube has been played over four million times, and shared endlessly on facebook, twitter and blogs, and posted on other video sharing portals like Vimeo (over 70,000 views).

The three-and-a-half minute film is the first and most popular in the five-part series that includes four shorter pieces. The story is premised on a young girl from Mumbai visiting her grandfather in Delhi. He tells her that he misses his childhood friend Yousuf, whom he hasn’t seen since leaving Lahore at Partition. She Googles the key words from the grandfather’s story and phones ‘Yousuf uncle’ at his sweet shop in Lahore… The rest, as they say, is history.

Most people who’ve seen the ad have been moved to tears or at least choked up, despite their best intentions. But beyond the fantasy fairytale ending of ‘reunion’ lurks the reality, like a wicked witch keeping lovers apart. And that reality is the wretched visa regime that makes it next to impossible for Indians and Pakistanis to visit each other’s countries.

India visa Sponsorship Certificate for Pakistani nationals

“Sponsorship Certificate: (for any one place to be visited): The Indian sponsor to certify that he/she take responsibility of the bonafide and good conduct of the Pak nationals during their stay in India as well as clearly specify the purpose of visit. This certificate should also be countersigned by any of the following Indian government officials (DM/ SP/SDM/ Tehsildar/ BDO/ SHO/ Groups A officer of State and Central Govts/ Principal of Govt college and Principal / headmaster of Govt School), who will certify that they personally know the Indian sponsor. Indian government official should also attach a self attested copy of their photo identity card along with his/her contact phone number. *Sponsorship certificate is mandatory for all visitor visa cases*.”

There is a reciprocal list of visa requirements; India’s it must be said, is longer and far more daunting, including the notorious Sponsorship Certificate that an Indian magistrate-level officer must sign and stamp, vouching for the Pakistani applicant. (See and sign the petition against visa restrictions).

Some joked about the potential of the ad to morph into a full-fledged shaadi scene, or the dismay evoked by a surprise guest landing up and expecting to stay indefinitely. But even they admitted to initially feeling choked up, and reverting to cynicism later. Fair enough. Having a laugh at potential absurdities and feeling moved don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

At the end of the day, the Google ad is, after all, a commercial, the aim of which is to promote the company. But it’s phenomenally well made, tugs at the heart strings and is highly effective in conveying two messages: Google as a search engine, and the pain of Partition.

Google Search – Reunion video 

The elephant in the room is the reality that even Google can do nothing about: the restrictive visa regime between India and Pakistan. Getting a cross-border visa is next to impossible. You can’t just “Google it” to obtain it.

This is a limitation that a young Pakistani, Taha Kirmani, obviously kept in mind while making his short film ‘Respect’ (August 2012). His film conveys the basic commendable message that all humans must be respected. In it, a young man connects his grandfather to a childhood friend across the border using Google, Facebook, Google Earth (to show him his old neighbourhood), and Skype.

It is clearly an amateur effort – they’ve got a young fellow acting as the grandfather, it’s not as slickly produced as the Google ad — but it is still quite moving. It is also more realistic than the Google ad: the two old friends connect via Skype – as so many old friends actually have.

With the rise of web-based technologies, both the Respect film and the Reunion ad are based on a pretty obvious idea that many have been talking about, including on the Aman ki Asha facebook group. Then there was the initiative in 2004, by my friend and former colleague, the journalist Mazhar Zaidi, then with the BBC Urdu service in London, to ‘reunite’ Kashmiri families across the divide using web links. The BBC video link-ups in Muzaffarabad and Srinagar allowed members of divided families who had not met for 25 years or more to see each other for the first time (see his interview in my documentary ‘Milne Do: Let Kashmiris Meet’).

This division and the painful visa regime that keeps people apart affect millions. So it is only natural that the corporations would try and tap into that market. The wonder is that they have taken so long about it.

Heart to heart, across borders

Heart to heart, across borders

Remember the upbeat Coca Cola promotion just a few months ago, in May 2013 in conjunction with Small World Machines? That was also based around the yearning of Indians and Pakistanis to connect. The Google ad, going to a deeper level, hits a far more emotional chord. Plus there are no ill health effects associated with Google.

It would be fair to say that the Aman ki Asha campaign, launched on Jan 1, 2010 as a corporate social responsibility initiative by the Jang Group and Times of India, has played a major role in providing a platform for the aspirations of Indians and Pakistanis to meet, and making these aspirations visible. This, coupled with the rise of web-based technologies, has created an unprecedented groundswell for peace between India and Pakistan.

India Pakistan visa regime Dec 2012-Bhatta Som

The relaxed visa regime that was supposed to be implemented in 2012, published in Aman ki Asha. Compiled by Bhatta Som

No wonder that the haters and bigots are going into overdrive to try and stop this movement somehow. Let them try. In this age of digital communication, they will not succeed.  Now if only the governments would understand this and stop trying to keep people apart.

India and Pakistan, it’s time to implement the liberal visa regime you agreed upon last year.

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