Thinking the unthinkable: visa-free travel between India and Pakistan

May 16, 2008

Former Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif is pushing for visa-free travel with India, and has gone to the extent of saying Islamabad might do it unilaterally  if New Delhi is not prepared to go the distance.

As ideas go, visa-free travel in a globalised world isn’t anything remarkable. In the context of the tortured India-Pakistan relationship this, however, would be nothing short of a political masterstroke.

For people like my parents’ generation, among the millions who crossed the border from Pakistan following the bloody partition of India never to go back, visa-free travel would be akin to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Likewise for the millions of Muslims who moved in the opposite direction, leaving homes and some family members behind in India, before the curtain dropped.


Until the peace process began in 2004, there was barely a trickle of Indians and Pakistanis travelling between the two countries. Just over 8,000 visas were issued to Pakistanis by the Indian High Commission in Islamabad the year before; that number reached a bit more respectable figure of 100,000 by 2007. The numbers are far less for Indians visiting Pakistan.

And it must rate as one of the most oppressive visa regimes between any two countries. For one, there is no concept of a tourist visa for nationals from the two countries. I, as an Indian, cannot go to Pakistan as a tourist; it has to be for a purpose such as birth, death or marriage and you must know somebody there, such as a relative or a friend for the application to be even processed.

And if you are one of the handful who do get a visa after months of waiting, it is usually a city-specific visa; so if you are a Pakistani you could get a visa to visit New Delhi but not Mumbai;  for an Indian, it could be Islamabad, but not Rawalpindi. And you must report to the police upon arrival and at the time of departure.

Indian High Commission, Islamabad

Even diplomats of the two countries suffer much the same restrictions. A Pakistani embassy official based in New Delhi for example cannot travel to Agra three hours away without permission from Indian authorities; and precisely the same restrictions apply to Indian diplomats based in Pakistan.

So for Sharif to suggest abolition of visas – against such a history of distrust – does take your breath away. Is is really possible ? Bombs this week in the Indian tourist city of Jaipur won’t help and only strengthen the case of those who point to external links to the attacks and urge caution in allowing easy movement between the countries.


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