Know thy neighbour

It is time for India and Pakistan to have a liberal visa regime

Updated - July 30, 2018 08:22 am IST

Published - July 30, 2018 12:15 am IST

The idea of a free and vibrant media is not a utopian concept. It is an essential requirement not only for the people but also for the state to make informed choices and policies that reflect reality, and to calibrate various decision-making processes. The critical distance maintained by journalism from various entrenched interests gives it the ability to document changes and record people’s aspirations. A good field report has a ear to the ground; it traces the emerging fault lines. Journalistic work may not be appealing to demagogues but every reflective policymaker values its immense role. It is in this context that the inability of Indian journalists to cover the biggest news story of last week, the general election in Pakistan, shows the insular attitude of South Asian leadership.

Poor intra-regional cooperation

Among the various regional groupings, intra-regional reporting within South Asia has been one of the weakest. The illiberal visa regime is the main reason for this avoidable lacuna. In 1985, when SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) was formed, its charter laid out some lofty objectives such as to promote the welfare of the people of South Asia and to improve their quality of life; to accelerate economic growth, social progress and cultural development in the region and to provide all individuals the opportunity to live in dignity and to realise their full potentials; and to promote and strengthen collective self-reliance among the countries of South Asia. SAARC proclaimed to contribute to mutual trust, understanding and appreciation of one another’s problems. However, in reality, intra-regional cooperation and travel has been minimal, and we have ended up with more mistrust than trust.

While it is true that securing a journalist visa for South Asian countries remains a major hurdle, it has become nearly impossible for Indian journalists to travel to Pakistan and for Pakistani journalists to travel to India. In 1997, when Prime Ministers I.K. Gujral and Nawaz Sharif mooted the idea of the Composite Dialogue, there was also a hint that a SAARC visa would be provided for journalists to facilitate easier travel for reporters across the border. In the early 1990s, there were two Indian journalists in Pakistan — one from The Hindu and the other from the Press Trust of India — and two Pakistani journalists in India — one from the Jang group and the other from the Associated Press of Pakistan. When the Composite Dialogue resumed under the leadership of Manmohan Singh and Pervez Musharraf in 2005, it was suggested that this number would go up.

In 2011, the SAARC Foreign Ministers revisited the SAARC Visa Exemption Scheme and approved a proposal under which the visa regime could be liberalised for select journalists, businesspersons and sportspersons. These three categories of people can be given multiple-entry visas for 90 days after prior clearance is taken. However, the diplomatic situation has taken a nosedive since 2013. Now, there is no Indian journalist in Pakistan or Pakistani journalist in India. Visas, which were already restricted to three cities, have become rare. It is strange that two neighbours who have a shared history and culture have to get information about each other through Western news agencies.


Living in hope

One of the cornerstones of the Composite Dialogue is an increase in people-to-people interaction. The visa restriction makes a mockery of this aim. There is a marked difference between South Asian reports written for a national readership and reports written by global news agencies for a general international readership. The focus, the accent, and the areas of concern are often at variance with the immediate requirements. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi invited his SAARC counterparts for the inauguration of his government in 2014, there was hope that the visa situation would improve.

In a moving article, “That elusive visa: You can’t just Google it” (November 21, 2013), one of the finest reporters from Pakistan, Beena Sarwar, pointed out the cost of this painful visa regime that keeps people apart. She demanded that both countries implement the liberal visa regime that they agreed upon the previous year. India and Pakistan, at various platforms, have talked about the virtues of bilateral talks. Isn’t a liberal visa regime part of a better bilateral relationship?

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