In twenty-five minutes, the student theatre production “Red Line” depicted over 60 years of troubled history between India and Pakistan. The ‘red line’ of course, symbolises not only the actual border that was drawn in 1947, but also the deep ‘hatred’ that has been created between the two neighbours. The key element of “Red Line” was a debate between an Islamic mullah, a Hindu Brahmin and a group of innocent children who are quietly trying to cross that red line to meet and play with each other as good friends.
The play was part of an exciting, day-long event last Saturday in Lahore, a Convention on Benefits of Relaxed Indo-Pak Visa Policy, organised by the Institute for Peace and Secular Studies (IPSS), a Lahore-based NGO working to promote Indo-Pak people to people contacts among other things. The well-attended Convention at the Punjab Institute of Language, Art and Culture focused on calling on the governments of Pakistan and India to ease their visa policies towards each other, something that will benefit the ordinary citizens, economy and politics of both countries.
The event brought together students, academics, peace activists, doctors, engineers, youth, media traders, and members of some divided families. Legislators from the Punjab provincial assembly, Arifa Shahid of Pakistan Muslim League Nawaz (PML-N) and Sajida Mir of Pakistan Peoples Party (PPP) also addressed the Convention. Both urged an end to tensions between India and Pakistan and emphasised the need to ease visa policies for maximum people-to-people exchanges.
Arifa Shahid demanded a fair and unbiased teaching of history by changing the current syllabus which is geared towards creating prejudice and animosity against India. “We should promote peace and establish people level contacts to understand each other,” she said.
Sajida Mir said that her party had always called for improving ties with India, and urged students and youth to step forward and become part of this positive change, which is need of the hour. “Let us live like peaceful and good neighbours.”
“Our objective is to engage youth in the peace process and create awareness among them against the negative propaganda that the establishments on both sides keep spreading through textbooks and other means,” Saeeda Diep, the convener of this convention and IPSS told Aman ki Asha.
She laments that whenever both sides have elected governments that try to create friendly environment, the military establishments and extremist groups on both sides step in with nasty plans like the Mumbai attack.
While visa conditions for religious pilgrims are relatively more relaxed, much “more needs to be done,” she says. The mutual trust deficit and conflict can be minimised through greater confidence building measures provided by a relaxed visa regime.
Convention participants passed a unanimous resolution on relaxing the Pakistan-India visa policy. They plan to collect 100,000 signatures on an associated petition to be presented to prime ministers of both countries. The signature petition aims to involve students at a nation-wide level in Pakistan as well as India, through Yuvsata, a partner organisation of IPSS in West Punjab.
Organisers plan to display prize-winning posters from the Convention on the back of rickshaws to create awareness in the city and counter the anti-India banners being posted publicly by certain religious groups. IPSS organisers are aware of the dangers of interruptions by those groups, but are determined to continue with their public campaign, said Diep.
“At the people’s level, we are convinced that free movement of people and a relaxed and liberal visa policy will help us understand and learn from each other,” says Khalid Zaheer, noted religious scholar and Dean of Arts and Social Sciences of University of Central Punjab, who participated in a panel discussion at the Convention. “We can head towards solutions of problems. India and Pakistan are both developing countries and we should have regular exchanges to reduce tension and defence budgets so that we can spend this huge chunk of money on public welfare, improve economy and eliminate poverty.”
He added that religious extremists in Pakistan do not want to allow space for others although Islam is a religion for all mankind.
Prior to the 1990s, besides embassies in the capitals of New Delhi and Islamabad, Pakistan had consulates in Mumbai and Kolkata while India had a consulate in Karachi. The closure of these consulates was a serious blow to Indo-Pak ties.
“In the past more than 60 years, peace activists have played a vital role to promote people to people contact. That is why we want more consulates and re-opening of the previously closed offices of both countries on both sides of the border,” said I.A. Rehman, secretary general Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and a founding member of the Pakistan-India People’s Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD), talking to Aman ki Asha.
Indian and Pakistani peace organisations have always rejected the restrictive visa regimes that prevent the free movement of people, goods and information across the Indo-Pak border. The call for a liberalised visa regime includes providing special facilities at border posts and other entry-exit points and visa exemptions to journalists, business people, academicians, artists, writers, students and the elderly.
Both countries issue visas after lengthy and cumbersome procedures that involved multiple proofs of identity and intent. They don’t allow for visits on any other grounds than pilgrimage, visiting relatives, attending meetings or conventions, and for medical treatment. The visa clearance on both sides involves security agencies that sometimes take months to revert. Visitors on both sides are also required to register with the police on the other side within 24 hours of arrival and departure, and to enter and exit from the same points using the same means of transport.
Governments on both sides say that they are working addressing these issues, that the Aman ki Asha ‘Milne Do’ campaign has also been highlighting for several months now.
Waqar Gillani is a reporter with The News on Sunday.
“For too long now, Pakistan and India have lived in a culture of animosity at the expense of the betterment of their peoples. For too long now, our doors have been closed through a strict visa regime strengthening the very forces that do not want peace in this region. But if there is a mutual understanding that ultimately both peoples want peace, then the debate whether Pakistan and India can start interacting as friendly neighbours, have people to people interaction and conduct mutually beneficial activities becomes misplaced because the various misperceptions and mistrust between them cannot be resolved without the two peoples coming together.
“We believe that only a relaxed visa regime between the two countries which allows both peoples to interact, converse, debate and disagree while understanding the position of the other can break down mutual hostility and lead to the resolution of long standing and arising conflicts. Multitudes of voices across both countries including parliamentarians, religious pilgrims, divided families, traders, farmers, aid workers, students and others have long been advocating this for the benefit of our people.”