Indian policy-makers are cheerfully contemplating one final move that may drastically change Indo-Pakistani relations: abolish the visa for Pakistanis wishing to visit India. They are obviously worried about the fundamentalists and mujahideen flooding India and playing havoc with the security apparatus in the country. Pakistanis have always been keen to visit India, and the Indians have known it. The Indian government claims that it processes more than 10,000 visas a month from Islamabad alone, which is a record of sorts. However, the present wave of Pakistanis wishing to be in India for one reason or the other has taken the Indian establishment totally by surprise.
India decided to issue 10,000 visas to Pakistanis to watch the cricket series. Special visa camps were set up and many of the folks applying for the visas were anything but cricket fans. The visa office set up by India in Lahore was mobbed on the first day by around 5,000 who had just gone there to obtain visa forms. The extent of interest in cricket was confirmed at the Punjab Cricket Association stadium at Mohali, where stands were virtually empty despite 3,000 Pakistanis having been given visas to watch cricket there.
So where were the Pakistanis? They were exploring India, and violating their visa restrictions, right, left and centre, and the Indians after a while just gave up the idea of keeping a tag on them. They were visiting places not stamped on their visas; some were visiting their ancestral homes; almost everybody was shopping; traders were trying to strike business deals, and the adventurous sort were checking out the local bars. The banner at the Mohali series read "We are the same nation."
The Punjab Cricket Association reinforced the bonhomie by encouraging Chandigarh residents to help lodge visiting Pakistanis as hotels were all full. I need not explain the feelings fostered by living with a family and it was definitely a masterstroke, and much more effective than any Track II seminars or official propaganda to tell us how evil the people on the other side of the border are.
In the midst of this all, and as if calculated, the authorities in the Rajasthan and Gujarat states, ruled by none other than the BJP, announced a grant of Indian nationality to 8,000 Pakistani Hindus. These were Pakistani Hindus who had come to India on valid visas but had overstayed and were now refusing to return. We all know about Adnan Sami literally begging then-Indian Deputy Premier L. K. Advani for Indian nationality a couple of years ago; but his request was turned down.
I regard this as a panicky situation, but apparently the authorities in the Islamic Republic do not feel the same way. Perhaps they are hoping that this is all a temporary occurrence, and attributable more to curiosity than anything else. Punjab's chief minister visited Indian Punjab, and constantly talked about Punjabiyat. This was followed by exchange visits by the chief ministers of Haryana and Indian Punjab, and lots of cattle and tractor exchanges took place between the dignitaries.
We all know about the media blitz accompanying the recent visit of the ruling Muslim League to India. This whole phenomenon raises a number of questions that are worth pondering. But does anyone in this country really have the time to consider the consequences of these events?
Most importantly, let us all be very clear that absolutely nothing has changed as far as the irritants between India and Pakistan are concerned. What can one say about Kashmir, where even minor issues continue to fester? Since the early fifties, India has constantly been asking us to do exactly what we have finally decided to adopt: work on confidence-building measures, and hope that other issues would gradually get resolved, or maybe fade out. We stuck to our self-determination for the Kashmir theme for five long decades and the Kargil invasion in the summer of 1999 was the culmination of this policy. The Agra Summit between Musharraf and Vajpayee foundered on this thesis, but we made a sudden about turn following some friendly persuasion by the Americans, and this is where we stand.
The rulers are perhaps too busy trying to consolidate their rule to worry about the consequences. The poor are too embroiled in their day to day survival, running from pillar to post with small chits, prescriptions or applications, in their hands, to worry about such mundane matters. The buck then stops with the middle class. It has its own set of problems. But it is tired of the military's involvement in our polity, and almost all have learnt by now that there is no way to get rid of this, unless Indo-Pakistani relations improve.
As and when relations improve, peace will be a natural consequence, and the importance of the military will gradually dwindle. The reasoning and logic of this line of thinking is correct, and not too far off the mark. However, what this class never contemplated is some of the inherent structural problems present in the Islamic Republic that automatically surface when the military pressure is released even slightly. It's almost like a catch-22 situation.
Many of these problems are a direct consequence of the military rule. But our military establishment is so formidable, being one of the largest armies in the world, that it can simply suppress any dissent or opposition by simple brute force. We have experienced it so many times that I need not enumerate. But this kind of suppression leads to the reinforcement of the existing frustration and depression prevalent in the society, and people get even more alienated.
And in such a state of affairs, what does one expect from our citizenry but for it to opt for the ultimate, and go for bhai-bhai and Punjabiyat. It is high time that the relevant authorities in Pakistan closely study this phenomenon. They should honestly ask themselves the question as to what exactly would happen if Pakistanis are given a free-hand to travel to India, like the Nepalis.
These are scary propositions but something to ponder about. If one gets cancer or Aids, one cannot wish it away just by constantly repeating that it does not exist. This is the era of globalisation and the WTO. And the latter is just starting. The opening up of India began only 12 years ago, and India is already talking about this century belonging to it and China. By 2035, its population will surpass that of China. Its trading potential cannot be ignored by anyone, including Pakistani businessmen. Once the trade opens, and it will eventually, our Meeras and Adnan Samis of the business community will go running to the other side, and we will be left with our corrupt feudals and their bonded labourers.
Edited version of an article published in April 8, 2005 issue of Pakistani Daily Jang. The writer is an advocate and a human-rights activist based in Islamabad.