When arch-rivals India and Pakistan signed an agreement on September 8 relaxing visa restrictions, many saw it as the culmination of efforts by lawmakers on both sides. “No fruitful result in complex Indo-Pak relations can come without people’s participation. Parliamentarians from both sides really played a crucial role in the last few months,” says S. K. Saidul Haque, an Indian Marxist MP and longtime Pakistan observer. “The new visa pact is groundbreaking and will replace a four-decade old restrictive visa agreement. It should open a new vista for enhanced trade and greater people-to-people contacts,” he told ucanews.com. A few months ago, Haque accompanied Indian Lok Sabha (lower house) speaker Meira Kumar to Pakistan for such an interaction. According to another lawmaker, Yashwant Sinha of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP, Indian People’s Party), MPs and civil society organizations also tried to pursue more cordial people-to-people relations. Pakistan has also shown much enthusiasm. According to sources at the Pakistan High Commission, the newly established think tank, the Pakistan Institute of Legislative Development and Transparency, has taken steps like fostering interactions between MPs from the two countries. In fact, prior to Indian External Affairs Minister S M Krishna’s visit to Islamabad at the weekend, two Pakistani lawmaker delegations had visited India. During these Delhi deliberations, parliamentarians from both sides discussed liberalizing visa regulations among other issues. “We have to explore and facilitate people-to-people contacts in trade, education, religious tourism and health,” said the head of one delegation, Pakistani Senate leader Muhammad Jehangir Badar. The other delegation headed by National Assembly member Haider Abbas Rizvi was also in Delhi last week at the invitation of the Federation of Indian Chamber of Commerce and Industry (FICCI). Welcoming the new visa pact yesterday, Congress MP and former Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor said establishing sound economic and trade relations can always create “constituencies of peace” and that could work as a deterrent against terrorism. He alleged that nobody in Pakistan was bothered when terrorists attacked Mumbai on November 26, 2008. “But if we have sound trade relations and Pakistani traders make millions from business in India, it is these people who will prevent another 26/11,” he told ucannews.com. This “Track-2" diplomacy, or attempts to improve people-to-people ties between the rival neighbors, was boosted when parliamentarians from both sides, headed by the speakers, stressed the need for a fresh push earlier this year. “The people of the two countries want to live in peace and prosper, and hence the initiative from lawmakers is worth appreciating,” BJP leader Sinha said. The new visa agreement was signed by the Indian External Affairs Minister and Pakistani Interior Minister Rehman Malik. The new regulations now grant multiple-entry visas for business people. Visas on arrival are extended to children below 12 years and adults over 65 at the Wagah-Attari border. The new system also allows tour groups of 10 to 15 people traveling through a registered agency. The validity of new visas has also been increased from 30 days to six months and from three to five cities. India and Pakistan grant special city-only visas to citizens from each country. The new rules stipulate a period of 45 days for visa processing, except for the visa on arrival provisions. The last visa agreement was signed in 1974 in the aftermath of the 1971 India-Pakistan war. As a result of the new deal bilateral trade currently worth around US$2.5 billion is now expected to jump by 100 per cent within a year, said Vikramjit Singh Sahney, president of the South Asian Associaton for Regional Cooperation Chamber of Commerce. FICCI president R V Kanoria in a statement also termed the pact as “historic.” Now the stage is set for signing other agreements – on customs cooperation, addressing trade grievances and mutual recognition when the Indian Commerce Secretary visits Islamabad, Commerce Minister Anand Sharma has said. Things are moving on other fronts too. The Pakistan Industrial and Traders Associations Front chairperson Sohail Lashari and Paper Board Traders chairperson Khamis Saeed Butt has visited Amritsar in the Indian Punjab to explore opportunities for importing paper. However, Tharoor cautions that despite this Track-2 approach Indo-Pakistan relations still have to overcome “the issue of hardcore diplomacy,” which includes the terror threat. Therefore, he advocates free, frank and a candid exchange of ideas.
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