One small step at a time
The hawks on both sides of the border remained stuck to their guns: ours lamenting that the ‘core’ issues have been consigned to the backburner while theirs feeling that Pakistan should have done ‘more’ to bring the perpetrators of 26/11 to justice and shown greater commitment to rein in cross-border terrorism. But it is a good augury that the recommenced dialogue has at the least yielded an accord on the liberalized visa regime.
Where India is concerned even small steps look monumental – like resumption of cricketing ties after interruptions that have twice lasted for well over a decade (if all goes well, restoration of bilateral cricket this coming December would only have taken five years!). This very agreement too seemed to have been a done deal last May when the Indian commerce secretary visited Pakistan with a mandate to sign but was stalled at our end for unstated reasons.
While there are some significant sections of the society – media personnel, academics etc – who may feel left out, the opening seems to be for real, promising much freer movement of people across the borders that have since September 1965 been more closely shut than anywhere else in the world. Not just the mercantile, industrial and banking class is likely to feel the reprieve but divided families and those on the line of control too are likely to cross over more frequently. Also given the curiosity amongst people in both countries the possibility of pilgrims and group tourism taking off seems quite distinct as well.
Another good thing is that getting a visa would no longer take forever: now a 45-day cap has been put on the number of days the respective high commission can take on making a decision.
Given that this is the first real improvement in the visa regime since 1974, a broad and tangible one at that, it reflects the commitment of the political leadership in both countries to take the endeavor for peace in the region beyond just peaceniks who were routinely shouted down by the well-entrenched hawks. This opening up of the people-to-people contact is meant to replace deep distrust with goodwill and bonhomie and galvanize trade relations to create influential pockets of vested interest that could make a pitch for sustainable peace in a neighborhood that has witnessed conflagration too often for comfort.
This incremental approach towards normalization of relations is a silver lining that looks likely to sustain. For the sake of the impoverished people of the sub-continent one just hopes that like so many times before it does not turn out to be a mirage.