India and Pakistan have fought four wars since their independence from Britain in 1947. The last visa pact, signed in 1974 in the aftermath of a war in 1971, had made it extremely difficult to cross the border. Pakistan was carved out of India in 1947 and the migration of 10 million citizens – Muslims from India to Pakistan, Hindus and Sikhs from Pakistan to India – was accompanied by bloody riots that left an estimated million dead.
For the first time ever, the two countries have introduced tourist visas, but with the restriction that these will have to be groups of 10 to 50 people traveling through a registered tourist agency. Pakistanis and Indians were seen welcoming this on Facebook, making plans to visiting the Taj Mahal in India or the ancient sites of the Harappa civilization in Pakistan.
The new visa pact will especially be of relief to families – mostly Muslim – who are divided between the two countries. The validity of such visas has been increased from 30 days to six months and from three to five cities. The two countries grant city-specific visas. In the earlier visa regime, people had to apply for a visa months in advance. The new rules stipulate a fixed period of 45 days.
The two countries have also agreed to grant visas on arrival to citizens older than 65 or younger than 12. This will come as a relief to those who long to visit the cities they left during the partition in 1947. And to strengthen trade ties, a new multiple-entry business visa for 10 cities, valid up to a year, has been introduced.
The new visa regime came as a result of a renewed peace process between India and Pakistan. India suspended peace talks after the terrorist attacks in Mumbai Nov. 26, 2008, but both nations agreed to their resumption last year. Yesterday's deal is one of the most substantial to emerge from the talks, which have remained clouded by the Mumbai attacks as India still argues that Pakistan has not brought the accused masterminds of the Mumbai attacks to justice.
“This accord is significant as it is indicative of a civil-military consensus in Pakistan on bolstering trade ties and the subtle acknowledgments by the Indian leadership to move beyond the 26/11 [Mumbai attacks] hard line,” says Raza Rumi, director of policy at the Pakistani think tank The Jinnah Institute. “Both countries realize that trade will be key driver of a sustainable rapprochement."
The pact was signed in Islamabad by Indian Foreign Minister SM Krishna with his Pakistani counterpart, Hina Rabbani Khar.
“The visa pact had actually been prepared much in advance, and the diplomats had ironed out the differences over it,” says former Indian Foreign Secretary Salman Haider. “The two foreign ministers signed it in person only to give it the imprimatur of high-level contact and send out a positive signal."
However, he cautioned that the visa pact by itself may not aid the peace process too much. There are still thorny security issues and territorial disputes between the two countries.