A Significant Leap in Indo-Pak Relations

TRANSCEND MEMBERS, 24 Sep 2012

Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra – TRANSCEND Media Service

Confidence building measures play a significant role towards addressing contentious issues between the nations. This well practiced rule of conduct among nations can be no less than accurate in the context of India and Pakistan, which have fought four wars since their independence. A period of relative, but sustained, peace can be identified in the troubled history of bilateral relations since the last decade, which could be possible and ‘irreversible’ due to a series of confidence building measures initiated by the leadership of the both the countries. The recent agreement on a liberal visa regime is an addition to these measures, which can prove, unless retracted or corrupted, effective towards moderation of rigid positions and transformation of conflict in the region. When Pakistan’s Interior Minister, Rehman Malik termed this agreement on visa regime, signed in Pakistan on 9 September 2012, ‘a sign of friendship,’ it indicates that the old sentiment of hatred has been wearing thin, and in its place has emerged an increasing realization that the complex relations need to be viewed through a broader paradigm of friendship and cooperation, rather than conflict and vilification.  Understandably, there are complexities in the relationship which need to be addressed, but these confidence building measures step by step can lead to transformation of conflict in the region. Such a liberal visa regime could hardly be imaginable a decade earlier!

If this agreement is measured from a grass-roots perspective, it has immense positive implications. Even from a trade point of view, it holds enough potential for a robust economic partnership between the two countries. The new visa regime allows businessmen, pilgrims and old age people to get visa for 45 days at border crossings. The businessmen of both the countries since long have argued for an extended visa regime with multiple entry facilities. The new regime will facilitate trade and commerce between the two countries. At present, the bilateral trade totters at a paltry $2.5 billion. Vikramjit Singh Sahney, SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry, observed, “Within one year of liberalization of visa norms, the trade volume would jump to almost double.” The Pakistan government’s recent decision to grant MFN status to India (India granted Pakistan same status in 1996) and the promise of a free trade regime by phasing out negative list of trade, when seen through this new visa regime, can prove a boon for the traders of both the countries. There are immense potentials for trade. While India can supply meat, vegetables, soya products, raw cotton, yarn, etc. to Pakistan, Pakistan can supply India items such as cement, gypsum, dry fruits and rock salt, etc. Such an emerging ambience will have a positive impact on cross-border trade in Kashmir, which has witnessed a fragile trend in recent years. Due to restrictive trade regime, both the countries have to trade with third countries on goods, in which bilateral trade can actually take place.

The implications of the liberal visa regime on old people will be far-reaching. The new regime, that replaces a 38-year-old restrictive visa agreement, will strengthen peace constituency in the region. There are many old people in India and Pakistan who have seen and experienced traumatic days of the partition, and who have family members scattered across the border. The visa for 45 days will provide old people occasion to meet their family members on the other side of the border (at present visa will be given at two crossing points, Wagah and Attari), and share emotions. Before partition of the Indian subcontinent and the creation of the borders, the people of the region enjoyed a harmonious and shared identity, which was ruptured after partition. The revival of the old shared culture and emotions will certainly have positive impact on the conflict environment in the region. The liberal visa regime, which can be further liberalized, will not only revive old relations but also contribute towards making new relations in terms of marriages, reunion of families, etc. Though such developments may not take place immediately, but the relaxation in the earlier rigid visa regime has certainly widened the feasibility of such a scenario in which a people-centric peace process can outweigh state-centered considerations of security, border and territorial integrity.

The new visa regime is applicable to pilgrims. It needs mention that many religious shrines of importance are scattered across the landscapes of India and Pakistan. For instance, while Khwza Moinuddin Chisti (a Sufi saint) shrine in Ajmer city of India is a place of pilgrimage for Muslims in Pakistan, places like Nankana Sahib (the birth place of Nanak, the founder of Sikh religion) is a place of pilgrimage for Sikhs of India. It is almost customary when a Pakistani leader visits India, s/he makes it a point to visit Chisti shrine. This year Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari made a special pilgrimage to the shrine, and on his return journey to Islamabad he met Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh (hence the term, pilgrimage diplomacy). Few years back, then Deputy Prime Minister of India, Lalkrishna Advani visited the famous Katas Raj temple (a Hindu shrine) near Lahore. There are many such religious places of importance in India and Pakistan. A liberalized visa regime can actually open a floodgate of religious tourism across the border, contributing to the national exchequer of both the countries.

The agreement must be commended due to its positive implications. Such small but concrete steps need to be taken towards building a robust relationship between the two countries. The visa regime needs to be further liberalized by increasing the number of days of visa and opening more border points for granting visa, towards a visa free regime. It will take few more years, given the rigidity in the policy structures of both the countries. The only country with which India has no visa system is Nepal, and if this system is further extended to other countries of South Asia including Pakistan, it will have a huge impact not only for conflict transformation in the region, but also for stability and economic development.

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Dr Debidatta Aurobinda Mahapatra is a member of the TRANSCEND Network, currently part of the research faculty at the Centre for Central Eurasian Studies, University of Mumbai, India. He specializes on areas of conflict, peace and terrorism, and strategic dimensions of Central Eurasian politics.

 

This article originally appeared on Transcend Media Service (TMS) on 24 Sep 2012.

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