A tale of goodwill visits

September 25, 2012

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A LITTLE over 15 years ago, a friend approached me to secure for his mother a ‘multi-entry’ visa for India. His grandmother was ill in Mumbai and the mother (the only daughter) wanted to visit her from time to time.

“There is no multi-entry visa for India, at least for Pakistani passport holders,” said the visa officer with disdain. Not being able to convince the consular section, I wrote to Mr Inder Kumar Gujral, then India’s minister for external affairs who later turned caretaker prime minister of India. That is how things happen both in Pakistan and India. Almost immediately the gracious Mr Gujral wrote back, “…[R]egarding multiple entry visa to Mrs… necessary instructions have been sent to the High Commission of India in Islamabad”.

Now more amiable than before the visa officer told me very patiently that while a ‘multiple entry’ was still not possible he could issue a ‘triple entry’ visa valid for six months. In other words, the passenger would have to perform all three trips within six months after which the visa would expire and a fresh one would have to be obtained.

That seemed no problem for a family that was very affluent with a retinue of staff at their service. In fact there was such ‘magic’ in the instructions issued by Mr Gujral that the visa holder was able to secure the facility every time and from wherever in the world she applied until there was no need for the facility after the ailing grandmother’s death.

I thanked Mr Gujral and suggested that since 1997 marked the golden jubilee of Independence of both neighbouring countries we could bring a group of schoolboys (from the Habib Public School) on a goodwill-cum-sports tour to celebrate the landmark occasion and would like to meet Mr Gujral on the visit. He wrote that he would be delighted to meet the Pakistani students, time permitting. We got a special presentation item to be gifted to India’s prime minister.

But meeting the prime minister is more easily said than done. For three weeks in India, we tried to get an appointment with the prime minister, calling his office from every place we visited, until the penultimate day of our tour arrived. “I am sorry, the ‘Pradhan Mantri’ is away to Calcutta after which he will stop at Delhi for a day before he leaves for Goa to declare open a stadium there.” Then, after a pause, he suggested “Why don’t you stay back for a week or maybe meet Gujral Sahib on your next trip?”

Since neither proposal appeared feasible, deeply disappointed we went to the nearest public fax shop to send off a message to the honourable prime minister. We wrote that the next day on its way to the Indira Gandhi airport the group’s bus would stop at 7, Race Course Road where the youngest member of our group would carry the present and give it to the security guard to be passed on to Mr Gujral.

We also said that we are asking the media to cover this unusual presentation to a person who promised to meet us but his staff would not allow a few moments of happiness to the Pakistani youngsters. Within five minutes telephone calls were received at five locations from the prime minister’s house for us confirming a breakfast meeting with India’s wazir-i-azam the next morning! On subsequent goodwill tours, we had lunch with UP’s chief minister Mulayam Singh Yadav and his party members, called on Delhi’s chief minister Sheila Dixit and, but for Phoolan Devi’s untimely assassination, the Karachi schoolboys would have conveyed their goodwill message to Vajpayee Sahib as well. Members of parliament the late Nirmala Deshpande and Shabana Azmi travelled all the way from Delhi to Panipat to watch the hockey match played between schoolboys of Karachi and Karnal.

But meeting and being photographed with VIPS was not the objective of the tours by the school’s hockey and cricket teams, swimmers and theatre performers, and Delhi was not their only point of call in India. They visited Agra, Allahabad, Ajmer, Faridabad, Lucknow and Panipat. They charmed Indian students and teachers with their sporting skills and friendship as well as their performance of a dramatised version of Manto’s short story Toba Tek Singh. Eleven performances were staged in various cities and institutions.

They not only shared bread with the high and mighty but also squatted on the floor to eat from banana leaves. Well-appointed VIP guest houses in AMU and Lucknow’s City Montessori School, schools and college hostels besides Indian (mostly Hindu) homes were where they stayed.

In recent weeks there has been much hectic activity about bilateral relations. Parliamentarians on both sides met to thrash out the issues that hamper good relations, one of them being the visa regime. But all that the lawmakers on both sides could manage were inane statements that visa regulations must be eased to facilitate the travel of common people between India and Pakistan. A distinct impression was created that these lawmakers are quite incapable of achieving the goal in the august parliaments and the decision rests in the hands of others. The military leadership on both sides, perhaps?

Likewise the sombre look of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh or the cheesy expression on President Zardari’s face gave no indication that issues will be grappled with gusto. Perhaps all of them can take a lesson or two from the Karachi schoolboys and their hosts in India when they deliberate people-to-people contact.

The writer is director, Habib Education Trust.