At last, India and Pakistan have put their signatures to a visa agreement that is forward looking, even if it falls far short of the ideal of freeing up all travel between the two countries. The new agreement allows at least some categories of citizens in both countries to meet more easily, and with fewer restrictions. Earlier, citizens of either country could visit three cities in the other. This has now changed to five cities. Under the old system, visitors had to enter and exit through the same point; in the new one, they can exit and enter from any of three designated points, which in India now includes Chennai. Visitors over 65 years of age can obtain visas on arrival at the Wagah-Attari land crossing. But the two sides continue to remain firm on not allowing individual tourist visas, perhaps the only two countries in the world to do so. In keeping with the new trade winds blowing across the subcontinent, businesspersons are the main beneficiaries. Their visas are now in a separate category: they will be fast-tracked, issued for longer durations, and multiple visits to as many as 10 cities will be allowed. The SAARC Chamber of Commerce and Industry expects bilateral trade to double from its present annual level of $ 2.56 billion within a year as a result. That may be an exaggeration; there still remain other barriers that need to come down for trade to take off.
However deficient, the visa agreement is still a sign that the two countries can move beyond just talk of normalisation, to take a concrete step that may help achieve this goal. At their meeting in Islamabad, the foreign ministers of Pakistan and India emphasised the need to learn from history without being held hostage to it. India has shown it has the ability to move forward from the 2008 attacks in Mumbai while hoping Pakistan brings the perpetrators to book; for its own sake too, it is important that Islamabad does this, and clamps down on terror outfits. Both sides are only too aware of the challenge to ensure that the present dialogue process, which began two years after the Mumbai attacks, and that has been remarkable for the maturity with which both sides have addressed their differences, is not derailed or reversed again. There are other positive outcomes that can be easily achieved if the two sides can keep at it. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh mentioned the resolution of Sir Creek as one possibility recently. He must not shy away from visiting Pakistan in November this year, as requested by President Asif Ali Zardari. A visit by an Indian Prime Minister would provide the process the right amount of political energy to keep it going.