“Let People Meet” – Activists call for a visa-free South Asia ahead of International Day of Peace

A decades-old peace campaign to ease tensions between India and Pakistan was rekindled with a larger South Asian context to mark N International Day of Peace on September 21.

A Change.org petition titled ‘Milne Do’ (let people meet) endorsed by 26 human-rights organisations in the Subcontinent has picked up steam in the past weeks since India and Pakistan marked 75 years of Independence. It has garnered over 36000 signatures so far.

The petition – addressed to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Pakistani Prime Minister Shehbaz Sharif, and Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina besides the foreign ministers of all three nations – calls for South Asian governments to institute soft borders and a visa-free South Asia, and to offer visa-on-arrival and freedom of trade and travel to each other’s citizens.

It also calls for long-term visas to members of divided families; automatic residential rights to cross-border spouses; decriminalising inadvertent border crossings such as those of fishermen, cattle herders and children; and encouraging student visas and youth exchanges in the region.

The latest petition carries forward a long series of peace campaigns between India and Pakistan. Coming against a backdrop of monumental tragedy in Pakistan with floods ravaging a third of the country, and with political divides amongst neighbouring nations restricting the flow of aid and humanitarian support, activists and policy influencers in the region have stepped up efforts for cross-border peace and calls for a unified South Asia.

Earlier this month, former National Security Advisor and former Foreign Secretary Shivshankar Menon said South Asia is at the centre of global geopolitics at a crucial point of global debt crisis, climate change, pandemic, and other transnational challenges. “The political and economic centre of gravity of the world is now Asia. That brings us both problems and opportunities,” he noted.

Speaking at a conclave in Kathmandu organised by Nepal’s leading media conglomerate Kantipur this month, Menon said, “We can’t separate the politics from the economics in the kind of world we live in. Domestic politics based on arousing fear of neighbours only leads to a dead end.”

Menon, who has served as Indian High Commissioner to Pakistan and Sri Lanka, and ambassador to China and Israel, suggested ideas for integration of joint trade, energy production, remittances and other avenues for development, cooperation and economic growth in South Asia as a bloc.

Adding that there have been good examples of practical cooperation in the Subcontinent on maritime security, counter terrorism and in other areas, he noted, “We should see security and stability as a common goal jointly arrived at. Until we the citizens make it clear to political masters that we have no space for zero-sum political games and that we have to think bigger, beyond political boundaries, we will not be able to realise our potential.”

The current ‘Milne Do’ petition is a revival of a 2012 campaign of the same name initiated by Boston-based journalist Beena Sarwar, editor of the peacebuilding platform Aman ki Asha, launched in 2010 by two leading media houses, The Jang Group of Pakistan and The Times of India in India.

“Even now, the most queries I get on my website are from ordinary people asking me how to get a visa to India or Pakistan,” says Sarwar, who has relaunched the petition under the banner of Southasia Peace Action Network (Sapan), a coalition of activists and organisations founded in early 2021.

She says there is proportionately more demand for people from Pakistan to go to India for medical, business, family and study purposes. Even second-generation citizens of USA, UK or other countries are refused entry to India just by virtue of having Pakistani family ancestry.

Similarly, most Indians who wish to visit Pakistan for tourism or short-term visits often find themselves facing a blank wall. In fact, the global youth organisation AIESEC, which has been facilitating international volunteer exchanges for the past 74 years with a mission to build peace and cross-cultural understanding across nations, finds the Subcontinent even more problematic than conflict areas in the Middle East.

“We are able to arrange visas and permissions for Indian and Pakistani volunteers to any other location in the world except to each other’s countries,” says Isha Jerath, national director of AIESEC in Belgium.

Jerath, a 23-year-old Indian who has travelled to 25 countries, met Pakistani nationals for the first time in her life at an AIESEC conference in Thailand. She was delighted to note they were “just like us”. For her generation, the lack of people-to-people engagement is incomprehensible.

“It seems to me that when one side is being more reasonable, the other side becomes more intransigent. I wish they could both be on the same page at the same time as they were when signing the 2012 relaxed visa agreement,” says Sarwar.

It was a similar petition a decade ago with over 100,000 signatures that had perhaps influenced decision-makers on both sides of the border to ease visa restrictions for senior citizens, children and certain categories of entrepreneurs and tourists at the time.

Organised by Center for Peace and Secular Studies in Lahore (CPSS, formerly IPSS), the Relaxed Visa Regime Campaign was inaugurated in March 2012 by noted peace activists Kuldip Nayar in Delhi and Dr Mubashar Hassan in Lahore. It was carried out in the five districts of Pakistani Punjab in the cities of Lahore, Multan, Pakpattan, Faisalabad and Okara.

“Barring a small percentage, an overwhelming majority of people voted in favour of peace with India,” recalls Diep Saeeda, founder chairperson of CPSS.

She presented the petition with 100,000 signatures to then Pakistani prime minister Yousaf Raza Gilani, but was unable to send it to the Indian premier.

“Due to skirmishes at the LOC in January 2013, India did not implement the new visa policy. But Pakistan implemented it in 2013, and Indians above 65 years of age do not need visas to visit Pakistan,” says Saeeda, who continues to facilitate visas and host senior citizens from India who wish to travel to Pakistan to meet their families or visit their birthplaces.

Indeed, families divided across the border have faced the brunt of virulent political rhetoric that has led to inordinately stringent visa restrictions in the region. Despite the divisive language used for people from Pakistan in the Indian media and political landscape, there are hundreds of thousands of families with members on both sides, both Hindu and Muslim.

One such family got a reprieve after six years when a man from the Hindu Sodha Rajput community in Pakistan finally got a visa to meet his family in India after eight attempts. Just days before the 75th anniversary of India’s and Pakistan’s Independence Day, Ganpath Singh – whose father was Pakistani and mother Indian – was given permission to visit his wife and children in Jodhpur, Rajasthan.

He was among 900 or so Sodha community members who found themselves ‘blacklisted’ from visiting India after visa rules were tightened following the Uri attack in September 2016. India and Pakistan closed down borders with each other, including for trade and tourism, and special mandates for communities such as the Sodhas were rescinded.

Singh’s victory is partial since his visa was granted for only 45 days, and he still needs an extension to attend his son’s and daughter’s weddings later this year.

The restrictions go beyond visas. In the absence of direct flights, trains or buses between the two neighbours, families like Singh’s – as well as entrepreneurs and traders – must use prohibitively expensive flights via UAE or other distant countries to cross borders despite living only a few hundred kilometres away.

But they are still among the privileged ones.

Criminalised for inadvertently crossing the border over unmarked stretches of sea or land, poor and uneducated fishermen, cattle-herders and even minors simply land up in prisons for decades of their lives, devoid of legal support and humanitarian help, sometimes even dying in prisons miles from home, never seeing their families again.

These innocent civilians are then used as pawns for political brownie points, such as in May this year when Pakistan released 20 Indian fishermen lodged in a Karachi jail, a ‘goodwill gesture’ that is alternated with a reciprocal action by India in a macabre annual power game. As many as 620 Pakistani fishermen are currently jailed in Indian prisons and 588 Indian fishermen jailed in Pakistan. Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi fisherfolk arrested by India and vice versa also face similar issues. 

“The visa regimes that our countries have adopted are violative of human rights,” avers Peter Jacob, executive director of Center for Social Justice (CSJ), Lahore, one of the co-signatories of Sapan’s ‘Milne Do’ campaign.

“For those with relations across the border, this is a question of fundamental human rights. For others, it is a question of freedom of movement, which extends beyond borders,” says Jacob, who has worked with Amnesty International Pakistan, Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and Asian Centre for Peoples’ Progress.

Jacob’s organisation sees relaxation of visa rules as more than an aspiration of the people. “It is a policy imperative. People in South Asia aspire to not only meet but also have active socio-cultural and political relations,” he says.

He rues that security concerns have driven the policy of South Asian countries to have more restrictions on intermingling of people, leading everything to a standstill. “But the challenges that South Asian countries face will be better tackled if there is free exchange of ideas and people. We can benefit from each other’s experiences,” he says.

Echoing the points raised by Shivshankar Menon, Jacob says that political actors in all countries have the potential to not only set aside the current policy of restraint regarding visas but also to understand the complexity of issues brought about by climate change and economic slowdown, both global and regional. It’s time to make SAARC active again not only on bilateral but also multilateral levels, he believes.

It is also time to take ‘Milne Do’ beyond Indo-Pak relations and bring in the larger ambit of South Asia. For, despite being ‘friendly neighbours’, visa delays and denials are rampant between Bangladesh and India too, says Dhaka-based human-rights activist and environmentalist Khushi Kabir.

“Bangladeshis have problems getting visas to India, especially if you are an activist or journalist,” says Kabir, who heads the South Asian feminist network Sangat founded by the late Indian developmental feminist activist Kamla Bhasin.

When applying for an Indian visa, Bangladeshis are asked to submit all their historical passports – which, in Kabir’s case, due to her age and frequent travels, numbered 13. “If you have even one Pakistani stamp on any of your passports, India will not give you a visa,” she says.

Pakistan visas are also almost impossible for Bangladeshis, she adds. “The last Asma Jahangir Conference organised by AGHS Legal Aid Cell in Pakistan and the NGO South Asians for Human Rights had to be hybrid with politicians from some countries joining online because of visa challenges. The same is true for Pakistanis wishing to visit Bangladesh.”

Things were not always this way. “When SAARC was still alive, a decision was taken that journalists would get five-year visas to all SAARC countries and people over 65 would get free access. But all that remains on paper. It is only Nepal and Sri Lanka where we can meet each other using visa-on-arrival and thus all regional events take place in these two countries,” Kabir says.

But peace activists in Nepal too are concerned about growing hostilities in the larger region. “When I visit other South Asian countries, I see resemblances among all, be it in terms of appearance, facial features, food, lifestyles, and economic, social, cultural and religious practices,” says Kathmandu-based journalist Namrata Sharma who has been writing on issues of human rights and peace since the early 1990s.

“South Asia has enough resources, both material and human. With visa-free travel, such resources can be shared. This will help us prosper as a region, strengthen social ties, and help each other to protect our climate and people,” says Sharma, building on the case for a political and economic South Asia Union on the lines of the European Union.

Citing education and healthcare as two of the most profitable business sectors for this region, especially for India, Sharma advocates that visa-free travel will pave the way for prosperity and wellbeing for all citizens. At present, due to difficulties in visa access for Pakistanis, Indians, Bangladeshis, Sri Lankans and Afghans to each other’s countries, there is a huge gap in the travel and tourism segment.

“There is lack of people-to-people contact, official conferences, gathering of families during festive occasions, and even difficulties in getting medical treatment during emergencies,” adds Sharma, pointing out the huge opportunity cost involved.

Bengaluru-based filmmaker Bani Singh was inspired to apply for a visa to Pakistan in 2014 – a couple of years before borders closed – after hearing pre-Partition stories of Lahore from her parents, especially those of her hockey champion father and his close friendships with his teammates before Partition.

After 1947, the friends got separated – some joined the Pakistan hockey team, others migrated to India. Bani’s father Grahnandan ‘Nandy’ Singh became a member of the Indian hockey team that went on to win gold in the 1948 and 1952 Olympics.

In 2012, after he suffered a stroke, Nandy shared with Bani his memories of growing up in Lyallpur and Lahore.

Bani says she was lucky to get a seven-day visa to Lahore (India and Pakistan issue city-specific visas to each other’s nationals). She was able to meet her father’s buddy Shahzada Shah-Rukh, the famed Olympian, who like Nandy was also then an octogenarian.

The result of all those conversations was Bani’s film Taangh, which went on to win awards for the best documentary at the 2022 New York Indian Film Festival and best film at Film South Asia, Kathmandu.

“If I hadn’t visited Lahore, this film could not have happened,” she says, acknowledging that she was one of the fortunate few to get a visa. “I was able to understand my parents better once I saw where they came from. I understand their taangh (longing) for their ancestral home, their beautiful city Lahore, their boli (language). It helps me understand where I come from, too.”

The longing exists on both sides of the border, she maintains. “So many people I met in Lahore, Delhi and Kolkata said they could identify with that pain of Partition. The trauma still exists. The only way it will heal is if we allow people to meet one another. Milne do.

Sign the petition.

First published in Money Control

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