No visas: So what is the problem?

People-to-People Contact in South Asia
by Navnita Chadha Behera, Victor Gunawardena, Shahid Kardar, Raisul Awal Mahmood
Manohar, Delhi, 2000, 143 pp., INR 270

After spending much of 2000 d ing research on the quality of interaction among South Asian academics, activists, and so-called "track-II" and "track III" participants, I sat down to read People-to- People Contact in South Asia in mid-January 2001. This is a book put together from a project executed by the Colombo-based Regional Centre for Strategic Studies (RCSS) with chapter contributions from four South Asian scholars. Working on the assumption that the existing difficult visa-regime is the main culprit blocking the flowering of people-to-people contact in South Asia, the contributors highlight different aspects of this problem and offer ideas to resolve them.

Raisul Awal Mahmood, a senior fellow at the Bangladesh Institute of Development Studies (BIDS), looks at the difficulties faced by a Bangladeshi national in getting a visa to other SAARC countries. He argues that the "amount of paperwork involved, the time required to process it, uncertainties, and above all, the attitude and behaviour of concerned authorities cause great difficulties to obtain a visa to travel across SAARC countries." Such impediments have a negative effect on business travel and on transaction costs related to decisions that affect trade and investment.

In a useful analysis of the paperwork involved, Mahmood finds no consistent pattern between the various SAARC countries with respect to the information sought and documents required. These variations range from the no-visa requirement for a Bangladeshi to visit Bhutan to an eight-page form to be filled out in the case of India. Apart from the forms, the actual procedure and the time involved in obtaining a visa also vary, in part due to the location and the limited staff of the visa-issuing authority.

Difficult visa regimes, Mahmood reports, are justified by the state authorities by referring to colonial legacies, as well as "mistrust among nations, institutional rigidities, obsession with terrorist activities, illegal movement of people across borders, vested interests, and lack of alternative method of monitoring movement of people across countries." Difficulties for business travel lead to the inhibited flow of information necessary for the current methods of doing business in the Subcontinent. The lengthy procedures to obtain visas also prevent business executives from responding in time to market needs. Members of the academic community are similarly affected, Mahmood adds, but this argument is made unconvincingly. Mahmood ends his essay by calling for relaxation of visa procedures. His is a very concise article that is strong on details.

Shahid Kardar, a chartered accountant-cum-consultant from Lahore and the honorary treasurer of the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, argues that the "nature of Indo-Pakistan relations is the main obstacle to people-to-people contact in South Asia". Explaining this perceptual constraint, he adds that the other countries in the region can not build more extensive relationships with Pakistan because such an effort will be interpreted as "alliances with India's enemy". It works the other way around too, namely, when relationship between India and the other countries improve, it gives reason for the Pakistani establishment to worry. A whole host of perceptual differences between India and Pakistan are reproduced in school curricula and by the media of the two countries. They influence the policy-making procedures and the implementation of rules that eventually make the free flow of people between the two countries difficult.

Interest groups that actually benefit from the continuation of these tensions between India and Pakistan do their best to aggravate the situation as their own positions on the domestic turf remain elevated in the presence of the tensions. Kardar also discusses the obstacles created by legislation and administrative procedures regarding the granting of visas. In the true style of a consultant, he ends his article with a long series of prescriptions to overcome the perceptual impediments, but only some of these are related to his preceding analysis. The rest consists of the usual laundry list of ideas often repeated in such articles.

Victor Gunawardena, a media trainer from Colombo, refers to the 1986 SAARC Summit in Bangalore, which called for five special initiatives to promote people-to-people contact: the SAARC Audio-Visual Exchange program (SAVE), SAARC Documentation Centre, Scheme for Promotion of Organised Tourism, a Chairs, Fellowships and Scholarships Scheme and Youth Volunteers Programme. He notes that little publicity was given to these programs, and that they have had little impact in promoting people-to-people contact between the regional countries. With respect to the SAARC visa exemption scheme which currently contains 21 categories, Gunawardena reports that the scheme received such niggardly promotion that many people included in the exempt category end up applying for visas. Despite the recent expansion of this scheme, it is biased towards the government sector.

Ideologies of hatred

Navnita Chadha Behera, a social scientist based in New Delhi, argues that popular interactions in South Asia are shaped by the choices of the states that have pursued a "modernist agenda in building nation-states." She adds, "the drive for preserving state sovereignty, national security and the search for national identity has resulted in emasculating people-to-people contacts in the region." Examining the case of Pakistan and India, she argues that visa controls were put into place with Partition at which time other measures (open border, visa exemptions, etc) were not even considered.

Nationalist discourses generate ideologies of hatred where Pakistan becomes the other of India and vice versa. National security is operationalised in terms of territorial security via military means, writes Behera. Difficult visa regimes, inadequate infrastructure, and nationally biased media make up the additional structural constraints that influence the tenor of people-to-people interaction in South Asia. Although South Asian states have nominally committed themselves to promoting such interaction, Behera argues that a "radically different agenda"—what she calls a "postmodernist" one—which privileges civil society over the state is necessary.

The writing of post-nationalist histories and establishment of a South Asian University that puts the people before the individual states in its discourses will be on this new agenda, according to Behera. She argues that such an agenda has a fighting chance because of the ongoing communications revolution that helps to transcend state boundaries, growth of ngo's and communications channels opened by them, and the track II and track III dialogues. Behera ends in a positive note by stating people "are clearly beginning to assert their choices and ultimately, they wield the power to realise the post-modernist agenda of popular interactions in South Asia."

Behera's analysis of the state-oriented structural constraints will not come as a surprise to students of South Asian history, and her section on the current state of popular interaction in South Asia repeats much of what she has written before. In ending optimistically about the future of people-to-people interaction in South Asia, she does not even refer to the weak points of these initiatives noted by her and co-authors Paul M. Evans and Gowher Rizvi in Beyond Boundaries: A Report on the State of Non-Official Dialogues on Peace, Security, and Cooperation in South Asia (1997). Hence, the most theoretically promising chapter of the book—Behera's—is nothing beyond a rehash of older writings.

Nepal-India paradigm

It is regrettable that no analyst was invited by RCSS to look at the case of people-to-people interaction between India and Nepal. There are two reasons to say this. First, the Indo-Pakistan scenario dominates too much of the discussion in this book, as elsewhere, and tension between these two countries is conveniently used by track-II participants from India, Pakistan and others as an excuse for not doing their homework. Given the open border between Nepal and India, and the absence of passport controls and any other kind of restriction on movement, there is something to be learnt by everyone in analysing this bilateral situation, formalised by the 1950 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the two countries. Nor is there a recognition, in a book devoted to bringing South Asians together by pulling down barriers, of how Kathmandu is rapidly emerging as a South Asian meeting point precisely because Nepal allows visa-on-arrival to all comers.

It is also a matter worth considering whether scholarship is really affected that badly by the hurdles that exist in each of the visa regimes in South Asia. After all, one would have thought that a little bit of inconvenience (such as processing delays, long forms, and questions at the consular counter) can easily be suffered for the cause of a South Asian future, particularly by scholars and activists who are doing most of the travelling these days. Indeed, some invitees to regional meets do not show up because they wait until the very last minute despite knowing about the cumbersome procedures.

It does seem to this writer that the larger hurdle for people-to-people contact is the airfares required to transport the seminarians and workshop participants to and fro, particularly given that they prefer not to take the more ground-based forms of travel even when it is feasible, such as between Calcutta and Dhaka. Also, let us not forget that the people who bemoan the time and effort it takes to get visas to South Asian countries are more than willing to undertake even humiliating procedures to join interactions in New York, Geneva or Brussels.

Going back to the Indo-Nepal open border, it would have been useful if the contributors had tried to juxtapose the cases examined in this book to that of the regime between the two countries—if only to test the link that is assumed to exist between troublesome visa procedures and the lack of mutual understanding at the people-to-people level. Several hundred thousands Nepalis work in India and the number of Indians in Nepal is hardly insignificant. While members of the labouring classes might be hassled at the border cross points, members of the middle and upper classes mostly do not even notice that they have crossed over from one country to another. Under such easy conditions, one would have thought that there would be a large reservoir of understanding between the people of the two countries. That is hardly the case.

The level of mutual ignorance and the willingness of the people to believe rumours and half truths reported by an illiterate media in both Nepal and India about the other country have been amply demonstrated in the last two years. Ignorant academia in both countries are also responsible for this state of affairs. I would therefore argue that even if the visa regimes between the other countries of the region were overwhelmingly relaxed, people-to-people understanding would not flower automatically as a result. Participants in people-to-people initiatives are not necessarily known for their commitment to the fostering of democratic cultures at home. They might not even be the most effective network builders for the region in their home turfs, a point this writer argued at some length in an earlier article (Himal, February 2000).

Academics in each of our countries have not done enough to develop the conditions for the promotion of regional scholarship in their respective countries. I have made this point for the case of India and Nepal previously (Himal, March 1998), and it holds true for all the other countries of the region. That is why one remains unconvinced by Mahmood's point noted above about how visa regimes have prevented the growth of regional academia, or pious wishes related to a "South Asian University" producing someone with a "South Asian mind". This is being too simplistic, even naïve, about the conditions in which social scientists currently work in our countries.

Regional people-to-people contact must contribute to further democratisation in each of our countries. That can happen only when such popular interactions draw people who are committed to the concerned themes in their own home turfs and have demonstrated willingness and skills to work as part of civil society networks. Otherwise, such initiatives will draw people who do not contribute a single sensible word to the interactions but who will animatedly compare hotel facilities in Colombo and New Delhi. Sadly, too many second and third track-wallahs of the latter kind have crowded the people-to-people agenda in South Asia.

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