Visa liberalisation

THE outcome of the talks between the Pakistani and Indian interior secretaries in Islamabad was disappointing for the two sides had nothing positive to show. A liberal visa regime still exists in the realm of diplomatic promises, for the joint statement issued on Friday does speak of its signing “at an early date” — when we do not know. The promised visa regime is businessmen-specific, leaving the vast majority of ordinary visitors frustrated. The suspicions surrounding a liberal visa regime stem from the kind of ties Pakistan and India have had since independence. But, until Mumbai 2008, this mutual inhibition had not stopped Islamabad and New Delhi from being fairly liberal about issuing visas to all. This was a boon for divided families. But now, there are security considerations for India — the latter should realise that terrorists, smugglers and other shady characters do not need a visa to cross an international border.

The signing of the new visa regime was postponed, we are told, because the Pakistan side needed the cabinet’s approval, and Interior Minister Rehman Malik insisted it should be signed at the political level. That the Pakistan delegation did not apparently have the cabinet’s brief before going into the talks on an issue that has been hanging fire for a long time is astonishing. As for Mr Malik’s suggestion, it has merely served to add to the delay. A harsh visa policy affects only the law-abiding, and that’s where South Asian bureaucrats’ antipathy towards the common man exhibits itself. That the delegations discussed a host of other issues — terrorism, Mumbai, Hafiz Saeed, a ‘hotline’ and the hapless fishermen — means little in terms of what the people of Pakistan and India want: normalisation. The Thimphu meeting between the two prime ministers and their subsequent ‘meetings on the sidelines’ had held out hope. But there has been no progress even on less contentious issues. In the meantime, India has hardened its position on Siachen. Under these circumstances, it is futile to expect what the Indian media called ‘the next lunch’ in Islamabad after Prime Minister Manmohan Singh entertained President Asif Ali Zardari to a sumptuous meal in New Delhi last month.