By Irfan Engineer
Mammo film depicted story of an Indian born old lady whose Pakistani husband died. Her other in-laws were hostile to her and therefore she had to return to India to her family. However the visa regime would not permit her. The solution that she finds is to destroy her Pakistani passport and make an Indian one. The film was based on real problems faced by many communities that continue to have matrimonial ties in spite of the artificial borders drawn, thanks to the colonial heritage that encouraged communal mobilization. Artificial borders divided the people otherwise sharing same culture, if not religion. Borders translated into different colours of the passports issued by each state. Mammo nani in the film beats the visa regime and so did some Pakistani women who married Indian citizens and had to confront the visa regimes which did not allow them travel beyond the town where their matrimonial home was based. The others who beat the visa regimes were the Islamists and anti-India organizations. Borders did not stop them and they never needed visas to cross the borders.
The old visa regime of 1974 vintage gave birth to the bureaucracies on both sides that often laughed all the way to their banks. The bureaucracies and their political masters pretended to be taking care of their national securities but failed to secure their citizens. Indian state blamed forces across the border for most of the terrorist attacks in Indian cities and the Pakistani state blamed India for violent actions in Baluchistan. The 1974 visa regime only succeeded restricting divided families, citizens interested in visiting monuments and places of historical importance, their enterprises, pilgrims, new ideas from crossing borders, as it did with the trade. Small time satraps could throw their weight around and feel they were doing their nation good by denying or delaying visas to citizens of “enemy” country. My own father – Dr. Asghar Ali Engineer, a person who stood his whole life for better relations between the people of two countries, and has been writing extensively on Islam as a humane and liberating religion, and whose articles are being regularly published in Pakistani dailies, has been denied visa in the past – not because he poses any threat to Pakistan. The Bohra community high priest’s establishment in India feels threatened by his reform movement within the community. Even the tiny but influential Bohra community in Pakistan could be mobilized to get him listed to be denied visa. This has been obviously done at the level of some petty official. Every time seminars or meets are held in Pakistan and Dr. Engineer is invited, the High Commissioner’s office calls him up and promises that his visa will be processed, ultimately leading to denial.
In 2006 we organized an International Peace festival in Mumbai. Sheema Kermani, a Pakistani artist whose troupe performs Indian Odissi dance was invited by us to perform. What could have been a better message of peace from Pakistan than a Pakistani artist performing Odissi? One thought that would be most welcome for Indian state too. Sheema kept phoning me from Pakistan to get visa for her troupe processed as she was very keen to participate in a peace festival in India. Indian High Commission in Pakistan assured her that they would give her visa even beyond their working hours if the permission was granted from New Delhi. I pursed to the best of my ability regularly persuading the bureaucrats in New Delhi. All that came to a naught. The peace festival had to proceed without cultural performances from Pakistan, but which were most awaited here by Indian audience.
Trade between both the countries with population of 1.2 billion and 180 million is abysmal at present – only about 2.6 billion dollars! Compare this with trade of 100 billion dollars between India and China. Business visas at present are only single entry and visa is granted for visiting only three cities. The hassles faced by exporters at Integrated Check Posts at Wagah border further contributes to the low volume of trade between the two countries. Vegetables and other perishable commodities could not stand up to the procedures and clearances at customs and visas. Businessmen prefer routing their goods through third country ports like Dubai and Colombo. Cement is one of the item that is routed through a third country. If one takes into account trade through third country, the volumes come to about 10 billion dollars. Visa relaxation will help save huge expenditures on transport and shipment costs and, as a result, prices of items, traded between both the countries, will reduce. Indian vegetables, sugar and tea are much cheaper and to the benefit of Pakistanis. Pak-India Business Council had been striving for visa relaxation for many years according to its Chairman Noor Muhammad Kasuri. With more liberal visa regime wherein the multi-entry visa are allowed and the number of cities allowed has been increased to five and without police reporting. The trade volume is expected to easily grow upto 15 billion dollars. Trade volumes in electricity and petroleum products are likely to rise with new visa regime. There will be far reaching impact on the economies of both the countries and will create new job opportunities.
Indians would love to visit places about which they learnt in their school textbooks – Mohenjo Daro, Harappa and Takshila. New visa regime would also encourage pilgrimage like visit to Hinglaj Mata Hindu Temple in Hinglaj, a town on Makran coast in Lasbela district of Baluchistan, one of the Shakti Peeth of Goddess Sati. It is believed that when Lord Vishnu cut the body of Sati (to quell furious Lord Shiva who was carrying with him the body) into 51 pieces with his Sudarshan Chakra which fell in different parts. The head of Sati fell in the area of Hinglaj Mata in Baluchistan. Senior citizens and children below the age of 12 will be entitled to visa on arrival and without police reporting. Since most of the people of divided families are now old and senior citizens, the families will have more occasions to celebrate their re-unions. There will be more academic exchanges and exchange of media personnel that will give a more varied picture of the country and the people. Visitors from both the countries are warmly welcomed and people shower their love on each other. I and all the visitors have amply experienced this. The “enemy” image of the people from other country that communal forces in India and anti-India Islamist forces in Pakistan wanted to foster to carry out their own baseless propaganda will now become a tad more difficult to digest. Media, academic and cultural exchanges enabled by new visa regime would play a significant role in fostering peace building measures in both the countries.
Both the governments should be congratulated for their agreement, even though it has not gone far enough. The New regimes are best step towards confidence building measures taken so far and let us not stop here.
By Irfan Engineer