By Waqar Gillani
If you are a peace activist and want to raise voice for peace between India and Pakistan by exchanging delegates, it is hard to be on either part of the border. You might consider yourself an activist but the mighty establishments and security agencies think otherwise – for them you are either a "spy" or worst still a "terrorist".
These forces have a leading role in scanning each and every visa application before stamping it.
Pak-India Peoples’ Forum for Peace and Democracy (PIPFPD) is a registered forum of peace activists from both sides, established about 16 years ago. A joint meeting of the forum has not been possible in the past four years because of non-issuance of visas to activists on both sides.
This is not the first time that the peace activists have been denied visa. "Even Pakistani activists scheduled to go to India for a joint convention could not make it and the joint convention had to be cancelled," Kamran Islam, coordinator PIPFPD tells TNS.
"We are unable to hold a joint convention either in India or Pakistan. This time, the forum has scheduled its convention in Jammu. The date of the convention has twice been postponed because of visa rejection and it is feared that it may not be held even on the scheduled dates in March because delaying tactics are still being used by the Indian embassy," he says.
Islam points out that Pakistani embassy had not issued visa to the 11 members of the core committee of the forum to attend a meeting scheduled in Pakistan in February.
"This is the price for raising voice for peace which we are paying," he says.
These are the activists who have accepted that certain issues like Kashmir are controversial, a stance denied by the Indian establishment and the governments. "This is what we have achieved through peace activism in 60 years. We have declared Kashmir as a disputed area which the establishment and the government of India always deny," says IA Rehman, secretary general Human Rights Commission of Pakistan and an active member of the PIPFPD.
"Peace activists on both sides have done something positive which governments on both sides could not do in the past 60 years," he maintains.
South Asian free Media Association (SAFMA), another established forum working for regional peace and harmony, has also proposed a visa free regime for recognised journalists in South Asia. It has managed exchange of journalists on both sides of border frequently and proposed a protocol for starting liberal visa regime through SAARC (South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation) framework.
Such peace prompting organisations have always been rejecting the current restrictive visa regime and restrictions on the free movement of people, goods and information. They call upon the governments and the people to revise visa regime and allow a liberal visa on the border posts and other entry-exist points while exempting journalists, business people, academicians, artists, writers, students and elderly from the formalities of visa.
The interesting point is that both countries do not issue visa for tourism but mostly for religious rituals etc. "It is not a tourism visa regime," says Tapan Bose, the secretary general of Indian chapter of the PIPFPD, who recently visited Pakistan to raise the voice for making visa procedures easy.
"We want visa on arrival like its happening in many other countries of South Asia such as Nepal, Sri Lanka etc," he says. "This can serve as clear example that bigotry between the both countries is decreasing and there is an openness to allow the peoples on both sides to come and go."
This also can promote tourism, trade and business activities. But instead of focusing on such peace promoting steps like making a liberal visa regime, both nuclear states have fast increased their defence expenditures, says Bose. "Both nuclear states failed to decrease their conventional arms and forces despite promises after attaining the status of nuclear power. India is even ahead in defence expenditures."
Pakistan and India had many consulates on both sides before 1990s. Pakistan had its consulates in Mumbai and Kolkata while India had in Karachi. But these consulates were closed after serious blow to the Pak-India ties in 1990s.
The visas issued by Pakistan to Indians are mostly on religious grounds — to the Sikh community. The visa clearance on both sides involves security agencies. The visitors on both sides also require a "police report" after they cross either side of the border to keep proper eye on their activities.
This lengthy and cumbersome procedure of visa adds to the worries of peace activists.
"We want more consulates and reopening of the previously closed offices of both countries on the other side of the border," says Dr Mubashir Hasan, noted peace activist. He suggests that there should be one window operation for the issuance of visa to ease out the problems of the activists. "Visa is the first and primary but the most important permit to promote peace which should be made easy," he demands, adding, "That is why the governments on both sides have made it strict so that there should be least exchange and less talks of peace by people."
Peace activists on both sides firmly believe in continuing to raise voice for peace despite visa odds. "We hope that the start of composite dialogues between the both countries after more than one year gap because of Mumbai attacks will be helpful in prompting peace through exchanging more and more delegations," wishes Bose.
"All issues should be resolved issues while continuing talks and friendship."