Obscene barriers By A.G. Noorani - Saturday, March 19, 2011

Source : http://www.dawn.com/2011/03/19/obscene-barriers.html

ON March 10, the Russian prime minister, Vladimir Putin, proposed to his visitor, US Vice President Jo Biden, that Russia and America take the “historic step” of abolishing visas between the two countries.
“If the United States and Russia agree to implement a visa-free regime before Russia and the European Union, then this would be a historic step in our relations.”
The two must lead and act ahead of a Russian-EU visa-free regime. The reason which Putin cited is of crucial import “This would break all the old stereotypes between Russia and the United States.” Conversely, barriers to movement of peoples foster the stereotypes and assist the respective regimes to promote their policies of confrontation, laced with a heavy dose of calculated demonisation. Deprived of independent sources of information, the people — nationalistic anyway — lap up official propaganda.
Around the same time, an Indian daily The Hindu published a candid interview by the distinguished writer Kamila Shamsie. She confessed to a love of travelling. But, considering that she loves to travel, the interviewer, Ziya Us Salam asked, how much time she had spent in India, excluding the time she spent at the Jaipur Literary Festival earlier this year. Her answer was revealing: “Honestly very little. Visa is a major issue, and then all the police reporting and everything takes a lot of time. In my life I have spent may be not more than three weeks in India.”
A visa regime is, fundamentally, a political statement by the governments of two countries. It is their way of indicating the relationship they wish to establish. It is not security concerns which govern the practice of rigid visa controls together with the barbaric requirement of police reporting. It is their political resolve to keep the peoples apart and retain a tight grip on information.
Early in 2004, just after the Vajpayee-Musharraf summit at Islamabad, Pakistan and India relaxed the visa requirements. Visitors from both countries brought back stories of the generous hospitality which they had received, coupled with not a few discoveries which corrected the notions that their governments and the media had spread.
Kamila Shamsie poses no danger to India’s security or territorial integrity. Those on either side, who require persons like her to report to the police ought to be ashamed of themselves. But shame is never in abundant supply. It is memories, precedents and obsessions which shape policies while joint statements repeatedly promise relaxation.
A retrospect might help in understanding how and why we have reached this situation. The best guide is Vazira Fazila–Yacoobali Zamindar’s erudite work. The Long Partition and the Making of Modern South Asia published by Oxford University Press, Karachi to which this writer is much indebted.
For the first few months after independence, visas were not required for travel between Pakistan and India. On July 14, 1948, India announced the imposition of a permit system, but confined to the western border. The minutes of the Inter-Dominion Conference held in Lahore on July 22-23, 1948 record: “India explained their reasons for introducing a system of permits but were prepared to consider its withdrawal if the two Dominions could evolve some system of regulating a two-way, as opposed to one-way traffic.”
In other words, it was tentative. The minutes add: “Pakistan was not satisfied that there was a case for introducing a permit system nor for any form of traffic regulation in either direction and stated that in deference to public opinion they would be obliged to introduce a similar permit system in West Pakistan, which would have to be extended to cover also, movement between East and West Bengal, if India could not see their way to withdrawing their ‘permit’ system forthwith.”
Pakistan’s cabinet decided on Sept 4, 1948 to adopt a permit system as well, also confined to the West. If security considerations mattered, neither would have excluded East Pakistan. Pakistan and India were born as independent states in August 1947. The subcontinent was really partitioned only a year later, wrecking a vital element of Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s vision of Pakistan — free movement between the two states; hence his retention of the Jinnah House in Mumbai.
To him Pakistan was not synonymous with partition; except in the legal sense. The Jamiat-ul-Ulema-i-Hind’s Maulana Ahmed Saeed assured Muslims of Delhi on July 24, 1948 that the permit was a temporary measure. Its organ Al-Jamiat wrote on Oct 20, 1948: “There should be no permit system, so that after Partition our hearts are not partitioned.”
Both countries were faced with the same problem albeit for different reasons. In 1948, Muslims were beginning to return, in large numbers to their homes in India, many of which were occupied by Hindu refugees from Pakistan. Vallabhbhai Patel sought to prevent their return, to Jawaharlal Nehru’s dismay. Beyond a certain point Pakistan, envisaged as a homeland for all the Muslims of the subcontinent, could not possibly accept them in very large numbers. “Keeping Muslim refugees out of Pakistan was imperative to its economy.”
In one fell swoop, families were divided and visitors were stranded. The situation was well described by Rais Amrohi: ‘Begum hai Hind me, to mian Sindh men muqeem/ Do no ko hai faraq ka shikwa naseeb se/ Kiya qeher hai keh ki mulaqat ke liye/ Permit hai shart — Woh kaise mile ga raqib se?’ (‘The wife in Hindustan, the husband in Sindh/ Both blame fate for their separation/ What a severe punishment that in order to meet/ Permit they need — how will it be obtained from the gatekeeper?’).
Two additional conditions were imposed — a no-objection certificate from the police in one’s country. In 1952 came the India-Pakistan passport, replaced in 1965 by international passports. The old permit curbs were carried over though the problems of 1948 had vanished.
It is time we took an overview of these curbs in the light of the realities of 2011. It is time also that public opinion in both countries asserted itself — jointly and in an organised manner to end the partition of hearts and minds.
The writer is an author and a lawyer.

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