A young Indian researcher, met with open arms in Pakistan despite tensions at the official level, argues that India should resume dialogue process and that both countries should facilitate people-to-people interaction.
By Ashish Shukla
As a student of Pakistan studies, I could not resist the temptation to plan a second visit to Pakistan when the Trust for History, Art and Architecture of Pakistan (Thaap) invited me to make a presentation at an international conference in Lahore.
Soon after the invitation arrived in July, the bilateral atmosphere was vitiated by the Indian government’s cancellation of the foreign secretary level talks in August. The situation worsened when the militaries of both countries violated the 2003 ceasefire across the Line of Control (LoC) and International border. The question of who fired the first bullet makes little sense given the accident-prone India-Pakistan relations.
In such an environment, all hopes for a visa were dashed when the organisers informed us in October that the Interior Ministry of Pakistan was not responding to their requests to approve the names of the Indian scholars for the conference.
I resigned myself to getting my paper read by someone else at the conference on November 9, 2014. But on the afternoon of November 6, the organisers informed us that the Interior Ministry had approved the names of all the Indian delegates, and we should apply for the visa.
The next day was Friday. With the weekend coming up, that left us with only one working day to apply for and obtain the visa. I submitted my application to the Pakistan High Commission, New Delhi along with the necessary documents on Friday, and requested the officials to grant the visa the same day to allow me to participate in the conference. The Pakistan High Commission officials did that, and I commend them for granting a young Indian researcher a visa on such short notice.
As I crossed the Attari-Wagah border into Pakistan the following day, November 8, 2014, I realised that I was the only Indian delegate who had been able to make it.
It wasn’t an easy decision to go. Just days earlier, on November 2, a suicide attack at Wagah border on the Pakistan side had killed at least 55 people and injured over a hundred and fifty. Yet my family did not protest my decision — unlike the previous instance when I visited Pakistan for the first time in December 2013 at the invitation of LUMS. Pakistan was no longer an alien, hostile place for them: they knew what warmth, respect and hospitality I had received there.
This time too I had a wonderful experience, except for attempts by one policeman to give me a hard time. This was at the Liberty Police Station where I had to report my arrival and departure; he made me report there every day and tried to get Indian currency out of me. But this is in the nature of police in our region. I am sure it’s same in India as well for Pakistani visitors.
On the whole, Pakistanis met me with open arms, not just at the conference but also at markets when I went shopping — Liberty Market, Anarkali, Bano Bazar. At Anarkali, I bought six handicraft pieces. The gentle, soft-spoken shopkeeper gave me not only a discount but also a small gift. The two drivers who would pick and drop me were lovely. The tour guide who accompanied us from Delhi Gate to Lahore Fort was thrilled there was an Indian in the group and addressed me especially in his explanations.
Also, through my interactions with several young Pakistanis and delegates from Bangladesh and Sri Lanka I realised that we South Asian youth have the same aspirations, expectations, dreams, potential, energy and most importantly, desire to make friends across the border and coexist peacefully.
I am even more convinced that at the people-to-people level, India and Pakistan have an excellent relationship. However, at the official level the situation is not encouraging. There are certain groups on both sides of the border with vested interests in continuing the hostility between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. These groups do not want people to meet because such interactions would remove the people’s misconceptions about each other. Secondly, such interactions can lead to people questioning the official narrative propagated by the establishments of both countries.
There is a perception in India that the security establishment in Pakistan benefits from this enmity and discourages people-to-people interactions by creating hurdles through various ways. But then what stops India, as the larger country, the ‘elder brother’, from granting visas to students, academics, and think tank researchers of Pakistan?
The only official justification provided is that terrorist elements could use these channels to create trouble for India. How foolish this argument is; terrorists don’t apply for visas. They cross the border according to their plan and convenience. It is high time for India to take positive measures in this respect and correct the mistakes of the past.
The first and foremost thing India should do is to re-start the official dialogue process. Dialogue is the only and the most effective and efficient way of resolving all outstanding disputes between the two countries. All other ways are too costly to consider. Secondly, India should liberalise the visa regime even if Pakistan does not reciprocate. These steps would have a positive impact on the overall relationship and strengthen Pakistan’s liberal constituency that advocates for peace and friendship with India.
Pakistan for its part should give first priority to granting non-police reporting visas to Indian students and scholars who want to visit for academic engagements. Their positive impressions of Pakistan can go a long way towards convincing India and the world community about Pakistan’s multi-faceted and positive sides. By denying access or making it difficult for academics, researchers and scholars to visit Pakistan, Islamabad only feeds the country’s negative image. Additionally Pakistan should also take measures to address Indian concerns.
[The author is a Doctoral Fellow at Centre for South Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. The article was first published at thenews.com.pk.]