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Walk across at Wagah

Published Oct 05, 2012 09:02pm

THE sad truth is that, apart from playing with grandchildren, there are few joys in growing older. So when I read that India and Pakistan had decided to issue visas on arrival to each other’s senior citizens, I thought this was a definite plus.

I had assumed that our respective negotiators had some human feelings lurking deep within. On this basis, I had thought I could get on a plane in Karachi and, less than an hour later, be welcomed by smiling officials in Mumbai. Or take a flight in Lahore to arrive in Delhi, again within an hour, for a weekend.

Clearly, I had not factored in the mean-spiritedness of South Asian babus and their political masters. With an unerring instinct for making life difficult for me, they have, with infinite malice, decided that senior citizens will only get visas on arrival at the land border at Wagah, between Lahore and Amritsar.

This means that if I want to go to Mumbai from Karachi, I will have to take a flight to Lahore, then take a taxi to Wagah, cross the border on foot, take another taxi to Amritsar, and then get on a plane or train to Delhi. From there, I would need to get on another plane to Mumbai. Such a trip would take over a day when it ought to take no more than an hour. And of course it would cost a whole lot more.

Would somebody please explain the logic of such an arrangement? How am I more of a threat if I arrive by air? If the purpose of this gesture was to promote easy travel between India and Pakistan, it is clearly a non-starter.

Indeed, this petty-mindedness underlines the lack of trust and openness that characterises relations between the two countries. Never missing a chance to miss a chance to extend the hand of friendship, both compete to demonstrate their nasty side.

Having got this off my chest, let me say that in however reluctant a fashion, I am glad that there has been some movement in relations. Frozen since the terrorist attacks on Mumbai nearly four years ago, peace talks have resumed and made some progress. True, concessions have had to be forced out of each other, almost like a dentist extracting firmly anchored canine teeth. Long, convoluted talks have finally begun to produce some results in terms of trade and visa agreements. But while announcements have been made, they have yet to be translated into reality, with respective ministries on both sides delaying the issue of official guidelines and notifications.

God forbid bureaucrats on either side should be accused of being hasty. Playing safe and claiming they are acting on the basis of reciprocity, they are doing what they do best: nothing. All this foot-dragging and procrastination reflects on the long stasis in relations and the frozen attitudes on both sides. To emerge from this mentality will, I suppose, take time.

Meanwhile, the world is moving on. While the subcontinent struggles to emerge from its 60 plus years of deadlock and conflict, its people continue to suffer from the stubbornness and lack of courage and imagination of their leaders. While both India and Pakistan cling to past grievances and archaic positions, the rest of the world looks on with amazement and annoyance.

On Kashmir, Pakistan is now totally isolated: even our friends tell us to give it a rest and move on. The army is preoccupied with other, more urgent, threats. And while India can clamp down on the unfortunate valley indefinitely, the moral cost of military repression is rising. Given these realities, one would have thought that there was enough of an incentive for both sides to revisit the problem with a view to finally resolving it in a way that is acceptable to both.

Musharraf, while guilty of many things, did make a genuine effort to achieve a breakthrough. He thought outside the box on Kashmir, and was genuine in his desire to resolve the festering issue once and for all.

Before him, both Benazir Bhutto and Nawaz Sharif tried to make peace. On the Indian side, Rajiv Gandhi and Atal Behari Vajpayee did their best to reciprocate, but were frustrated by their own hawks, and in the latter’s case, by Musharraf’s madcap adventure in Kargil.

We need to learn from past failures and not dwell on them. In Pakistan, civilian efforts at peacemaking have been sabotaged by both the military and the militants. But now it seems there is growing realisation in the GHQ that our sickly economy cannot generate the resources to maintain our present level of armed forces. And if the economy is to get a boost, one way is through trade with India.

While some sectors of Pakistan’s business community fear competition from its giant neighbour, there appears to be a consensus that overall, open trade and investments would result in a win-win situation for both sides. Pakistan’s rupee is trading at a far weaker rate than India’s against the dollar, and this alone would give our exports an advantage.

Fortunately, both Asif Zardari and Nawaz Sharif, leaders of Pakistan’s biggest political parties, have publicly and repeatedly stated their belief in good relations with India. And it appears that both sides have tacitly agreed to put the intractable Kashmir issue on the back burner while they get on with a host of other matters. This has long been India’s position, and I am glad good sense has prevailed in Islamabad and the GHQ.

But even good sense is not proof against bureaucratic pettiness. Diplomats in both foreign ministries have been trained in intransigence when it comes to each other. Their default position is to say ‘no’. For precisely this reason, when my old friend Tariq Aziz, Musharraf’s national security adviser, was running back-channel talks with his Indian counterpart, he and his boss kept our Foreign Office out of the loop.

So while hoping for the best, we need to be realistic in our expectations. Small things like the import of popular Indian movies are to be applauded. And even if senior citizens have to trudge across the border at Wagah, we will just have to live with it.

The writer is the author of Fatal Faultlines: Pakistan, Islam and the West.

irfan.husain@gmail.com