NEW DELHI, Dec 14: India and Pakistan sealed an agreement to ease tough visa restrictions for travellers on Friday as they move slowly to rebuild relations that soured in 2008 when Pakistani militants attacked Mumbai.
The accord was signed by India’s home minister and his Pakistani counterpart, weeks before the two cricket-loving nations play their first series in India since the attacks that killed 166 people.
“This is not only historic but this is a step forward for the two countries in the progress of peace,” said Interior Minister Rehman Malik during a three-day visit to New Delhi.
Under the previous arrangement, Pakistani business travellers were restricted to certain cities, prohibiting their travel from Delhi to the nearby thriving business hub of Gurgaon without permission.
The change will permit visitors to travel to five places now instead of three and some businessmen will get multiple-entry visas, exempting them from reporting to the police.
The two governments agreed to relax visa rules in principle in September, when former Indian foreign minister S.M.
Krishna visited Islamabad. India is likely to issue up to 3,000 multi-city visas to Pakistani cricket fans and an additional 300 to VIPs for the cricket series that starts on Christmas day, allowing Pakistanis to cheer on their national team on Indian turf.
“This is a baby step towards reducing the tensions between India and Pakistan,” said Ashok Mehta, a former major general of the Indian army.
“But it’s still significant, especially because nothing is happening on big-ticket items like border management and terrorism – the real ice-breakers.”
The new visa system will allow members of divided families, businesspeople, tourists and pilgrims to obtain visas quickly instead of waiting for months.
It will come into force in two phases on Jan 15 and March 15, said a joint statement by the two ministers. Visas on arrival will be given to people over 65. Both countries say they aim to give visas to younger people within 45 days.
However, in a sign that improvements in ties will be a slow process, the TimesNow TV news channel reported that Mr Malik’s arrival in Delhi was delayed by more than three hours because of a security-clearance issue raised by India to a military plane used by him.
“The pilots expect some kind of clearance. It got delayed. It was beyond me,” Mr Malik said.—Agencies
Our Staff Reporter in Islamabad adds: The visit described by the Indian side as a ‘friendly meeting’ and by Pakistanis as a ‘goodwill trip’ other than inaugurating the new visa regime agreed between the two sides in September, is set to witness intense discussions over Pakistan’s progress on prosecution of Mumbai attack suspects and dismantling the alleged terror network.
Problems confronted in setting up Mr Malik’s meetings with Indian Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh and Congress President Sonia Gandhi, which he (Mr Malik) had wished, reflect the mood in Delhi.
Echoing sentiments in Delhi, Indian External Affairs Minister Salman Khurshid, while commenting on Mr Malik’s visit said: “We have seen a little movement as far as the accountability of Mumbai attacks in 2008 is concerned.”
Meeting with Ms Gandhi is said to be unlikely. Other interactions with Indian leadership scheduled are meeting Prime Minister Singh, Home Minister Shinde, National Security Advisor Shiv Shankar Menon and Lok Sabha Leader of Opposition Sushma Swaraj.
Mr Malik’s wish for celebrating his birthday (Dec 13) at Taj Mahal along with wife, who is accompanying him on the trip, remained unfulfilled.