There is a certain power to geographical distance. It helps to instantly grasp the ironies of our South Asian polity. On May 21, 2014, I realised this while sitting in Pakistani journalist Beena Sarwar’s home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I was struck by two different stories that appeared that day. One was by Meena Menon, The Hindu’s Islamabad correspondent who was expelled by Pakistan, and the other was a report from Pakistan that confirmed Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s participation in Narendra Modi’s swearing-in ceremony. I cannot but wonder at this contradiction. There was a political move to mend relations between the two nuclear neighbours, yet they did not want journalists from each other’s country to perform their duty.
Most illiberal visa regime
It is not an exaggeration to say that the Indo-Pakistan visa regime is one of the most illiberal ones among modern nation states. It not only blocks the movement of people but also feeds into institutional entropy that constantly increases the trust deficit between the two countries. The lack of credible information flow between the two countries has taken its toll, leading to a dangerous situation where fringe elements, on both sides, use stereotypes to define the other. Ms Sarwar and I are part of the journalistic universe, which includes innumerable sane voices across the border which have been canvassing for a better visa regime between the two countries.
When the search engine Google came up with its advertisement film, Reunion, Ms Sarwar wrote an evocative article: “That visa: You can’t just ‘Google it.’” She wrote: “Most people who’ve seen the ad have been moved to tears or at least choked up, despite their best intentions. But beyond the fantasy fairytale ending of ‘reunion’ lurks the reality, like a wicked witch keeping lovers apart. And that reality is the wretched visa regime that makes it next to impossible for Indians and Pakistanis to visit each other’s countries… India and Pakistan, it’s time to implement the liberal visa regime you agreed upon last year.”
I think it is important here to explain the visa rules that govern Indian and Pakistani journalists to work from each other’s country. Nirupama Subramanian in her Neiman Report (Fall 2010) says there is an unwritten agreement between India and Pakistan that ensures that only two journalists from either country can be stationed in the other at any given time. While Pakistan’s representatives in New Delhi were from its state-owned media, Indian slots are given to The Hindu and the Press Trust of India.
But the restriction is not just in the number of slots. It manifests itself in other ways. “With a visa that was restricted only to Islamabad, and which had to be renewed every three months, the paperwork was enormous; the many trips to the External Publicity (EP) Wing, our contact point, were meant to tire us out. Even there they were nice, always ready to offer a cup of tea and words of solace that the visa would be renewed,” recollected Ms Menon.
The most irritating part is the lack of any indication about the decision from the authorities regarding any application or query. At some level, New Delhi and Islamabad mirror each other when it comes to dealing with journalistic requests. For the sake of space let us just look at two first person recollections here. Ms Menon wrote: “I used to submit applications at regular intervals to visit other parts of Pakistan such as Taxila, Lahore, Peshawar and Mohenjo-Daro after the Sindh government had invited us to cover the festival, but there was no reply.” Ms Subramanian’s recollection: “The visa renewal process was an annual battle. I applied four months before the visa ran out in May every year, and I usually got it four months after it expired. It was something to keep you on tenterhooks for eight months of the year. At the first renewal in 2007, I had to wait until September. The exact reason for the delay was never spelled out to me.”
My experience as the executive director of Panos South Asia in bringing together the editors of India and Pakistan for a decade gave me first-hand knowledge of how a better visa regime could lead to a better and reliable informational flow and reduce the trust deficit. I believe that this interaction at the editors level has helped to keep the process of detente on track, despite the many provocations we know so well.
Let me recollect what I shared with my Pakistani friends in Karachi in 2010. “After these years of constant interaction and opening up each other’s media for voices of sense and moderation from either side, within the constraints of geopolitics, the two countries have come to a new equation. Though this has given space for better synergistic interaction, these notions are still fragile, and some of the old ghosts are still alive.”
If Mr. Sharif and Mr. Modi have to narrow the trust deficit, they must surely come up with a better visa regime — both for ordinary citizens and for journalists. That is the only way to exorcise past ghosts.