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And two steps backward

January 21, 2013 14:00 IST
Country watchers in both India and Pakistan recognise the swampy terrain of the Slough of Despond ahead. It's no-visa season again

On Tuesday, January 15, the India-Pakistan border crossing at Wagah-Attari, bizarrely, wore a rather festive look. In a much-heralded move, it was the day the two countries were to start issuing visas on arrival for senior citizens, 65 years and above. In the cheerful atmosphere, led by the foreigner regional registration officer, one Sikh traveller availed the facility to calmly walk across; the Lahore-Delhi bus ferrying passengers from the other side also sailed through. Then the visa windows suddenly slammed shut citing "technical issues". 

This was 11 days after the LoC shootouts began, seven days after Lance Naik Hemraj was beheaded and the very day the prime minister was making his "there can be no business as usual" comments in New Delhi on Army Day. India-Pakistan relations are sometimes viewed through a savage ironist's prism -- no wonder there is so much darkly comic fiction on the subject -- but the above sequence would indicate some desperate co-ordinating delays. In an age of lightning split-second communication, how many days, hours and minutes can it take for Indian government, Parliament, army, intelligence and visa givers to get their act together in a calibrated response? 

Skirmishes and casualties along the LoC are not unusual -- in fact they have been progressively growing in recent years. India reported 117 ceasefire violations (up from 60 in 2011) and 91 jawans died in 2012, but the incidents provoked few headlines. The present commotion and rising tempers reflect Pakistan's renewed political churning. Always susceptible to the ambitions of generals and jihadists, Asif Ali Zardari's vulnerability will be tested in the upcoming general elections when he seeks a second term. His silence over the LoC killings was aggravated by Sushma Swaraj's shrill demand, after visiting Hemraj's family, that India should get at least 10 heads if Pakistan failed to return the Indian soldier's severed head.

A growing cordiality was reported between Mr Zardari and Manmohan Singh in April and August last year -- the Pakistani president's visit to Ajmer followed by their meeting at the Non-Aligned Movement summit in Tehran -- that led to the opening of the visa counters at Wagah this week. That is now a remembrance of things past in the eternal see-saw of India-Pakistan relations, the thaws frozen by the serious body damage inflicted by terrorist strikes on Parliament in 2001 followed by 26/11.

The LoC killings, in this context, may only be a hairline fracture, but those who managed the visas ended up paying the full price. In a mockery of people-to-people friendship the two countries pitch entry fees at piffling rates: a Pakistani visa costs 15 Indian rupees. But ask the Pakistani hockey team that returned home this week, the Pakistani theatre groups in Delhi whose shows were suddenly cancelled, or the panicked 150 Pakistani doctors attending a medical conference in Hyderabad, what it cost them.

I have been going to Pakistan often since 1977, including a couple of times since 2010, but seldom had trouble-free travel. On the last occasion when Pakistan International Airlines went on strike, I spent most of my week in Lahore police stations trying to convert my air exit into an overland crossing. Friends couldn't have been more helpful, generous or hospitable; it was the bureaucratic obstacles that were wretched and seemingly insuperable. Not long after 26/11, a colleague -- with long experience of reporting from Pakistan -- was issued a visa by Pakistan's deputy high commissioner in Delhi. But on arrival in Lahore, she was found to be on the intelligence agency's "blacklist", issued deportation orders, and was put back on Indian Airlines' turnaround flight. "I've always wondered how they would have treated me if they had to keep me overnight," she wryly observed.

There are no Indian Airlines flights any more. Track II diplomacy and confidence-building measures are on hold. Country watchers on both sides recognise the swampy terrain of the Slough of Despond ahead. It's no-visa season again. One step forward, followed by two steps backward...
Sunil Sethi
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