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The people’s voice

November 24, 2018

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The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.
The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

L.K. ADVANI’S humiliating dismissal by the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh from the presidentship of its political wing the BJP in 2005 obscured an important aspect of his visit to Pakistan the same year. He was sacked for the measured praise which he wrote in the Visitors’ Book in Mohammad Ali Jinnah’s mausoleum at Karachi on June 4, 2005.

What he said in Lahore on June 2 is of great and painful relevance today. “I can say that, in the case of the ongoing peace process between India and Pakistan, both the governments have responded to the call of the people. Indeed, when I met your president, Gen Pervez Musharraf ... he described the phenomenon in a rather dramatic manner. ‘The people have taken over the peace process.’ He meant that it is no longer the governments, or political parties, that are driving the peace process, but primarily the people of both India and Pakistan.”

Advani added, “In respect of the issue of Jammu and Kashmir, any eventual solution has to be acceptable to both India and Pakistan, as to all sections of the diverse communities in [J&K].” He said: “fiza zaroor badli hai” (the atmosphere has definitely changed).

India and Pakistan can profit hugely by interaction between their intellectuals.

A decade later, the Modi government ended the dialogue process.

There is a profound misconception of the role of the people and their surrogate the media in the making of foreign policy. No government should ignore it or be enslaved by it if the popular clamour is misinformed. But no government has the right to crush or stifle expression of the people’s voice either.

The early months of Independence brought India and Pakistan to the verge of war. Yet, visas were not required for travel. On July 14, 1948, India announced imposition of a permit system, confined to the western frontier. The minutes of a conference held in Lahore in July 1948 record: “India explained their reasons for introducing a system of permits but were prepared to consider its withdrawal if the two dominions could evolve some system of regulating two-way, as opposed to one-way, traffic.”

The minutes add: “Pakistan was not satisfied that there was a case for introducing a permit system nor for any form of traffic regulation in either direction, and stated that in deference to public opinion they would be obliged to introduce a similar permit system in West Pakistan.” Pakistan’s cabinet decided to adopt the permit system too. The temporary became permanent.

Sure, both countries can profit hugely by interaction between their writers, intellectuals and scientists. We have so much in common. Reading Ishrat Husain’s brilliant work Governing the Ungovernable, I was struck by the relevance of his analyses and advice.

It is a shame that one of South Asia’s most distinguished writers Kamila Shamsie could spend “very little time” in India. “Visa is a major issue, and then all the police reporting and everything take a lot of time. In my life, I have spent may be not more than three weeks in India.”

Police reporting for Kamila Shamsie? Who has lost by it but India’s literary community.

Remember the easing of curbs after the Musharraf-Vajpayee summit in 2004? There was a flood of visitors from both countries with each side returning with stories of warm hospitality in ‘the other’ country.

The people yearn for peace and deeply desire free movement across the international borders as well as the Line of Control. The time is come to tackle the problem at its roots — the visa power. Every state has a right to deny entry to aliens. But this ancient right has frayed at the edges and must be qualified.

Absent any consideration of security, surely no state is entitled to deny visas to writers, scholars, artists, scientists and the like if their presence is desired by the state’s own citizens — in exercise of their right to know.

In 2009, the US court of appeals for the sec­­ond circuit found that the First Ame­n­d­ment rights of Americans are at stake when foreign scholars, artists, politicians and others are excluded. It relied on a 1972 supreme court ruling in the Mandel case that citizens have the right to “hear, speak, and debate with visa applicant”. It was a split decision.

The majority upheld the government’s case but rejected their arguments that since Ernest Mandel’s writings were available, he need not come. “This argument overlooks what may be particular qualities inherent in sustained face-to-face debate, discussions and questioning.” The 1972 ruling, at the height of the Cold War, is unlikely to stand in 2018. The minority’s view that refusal of visa to Mandel was open to challenge will now be upheld — as, indeed, it should be.

Fundamentally, both governments seek to insulate their peoples from external inputs lest the clamour for peace renders their policies ineffective. On this, the honours between India and Pakistan are evenly divided.

The writer is an author and a lawyer based in Mumbai.

Published in Dawn, November 24th, 2018