Originally Published 2012-04-07 00:00:00 Published on Apr 07, 2012
After Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) on India-Pakistan borders having almost failed, may be, hopefully, the high-profile pilgrimage of President Asif ali Zardari will play a role in making the visits of not-so-high profile ones less arduous and cumbersome.
Zardari's India visit: Improve religious tourism
Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari and Dr Manmohan Singh will have plenty to discuss, from trade to Hafiz Saeed - a last-minute addition but an important one - during their lunch on April 8. It is believed that the issue of easing the bilateral visa regime, especially for the business community, is likely to be high on the agenda.

It would be apt that substantial measures are taken to increase the level of tourism, especially religious tourism, between the two countries by further easing visa procedures for citizens who want to avail of existing Confidence Building Measures (CBMs) such as bus and rail services. This includes Hindus and Sikhs who want to visit places of religious worship in Pakistan, apart from tourist destinations in that country such as Taxila, and Pakistanis who want to visit religious shrines and other tourist spots in India such as the Taj Mahal. Tourism, especially visits to religious shrines, carries on regardless of tension and obviously helps in generating goodwill. In fact, even a few months after the Mumbai attacks, Sikh pilgrims who were initially wary of visiting Pakistan went ahead and received a rousing welcome.

Aside from the goodwill these visits create, there is immense economic potential, especially for the Pakistani economy, which is facing numerous challenges. While the present number of Indian tourists and religious pilgrims may not contribute substantially to the Pakistan economy, a substantial increase in the number of tourists would definitely do so. To Pakistan’s credit, it has actually renovated important Sikh shrines and is working on improving accommodation facilities there. At the Gurdwara Punja Sahib in Hasanabdal (near Islamabad), a 200-room complex to offer accommodation to Sikh and Hindu pilgrimmes has been built at an estimated cost of US $2,36,000. Similarly in Lahore, the Gurdwara Janamsthan Nankana Sahib and Gurdwara Dera Sahib shrines are building 200 and 500-room guest houses. The Hindu shrine of Katasraj has also been renovated.

While all these initiatives are laudable, some significant lacunae in CBMs have hindered their success. Firstly, certain CBMs, even the one’s targeted at increasing religious tourism such as the Amritsar-Nankana Sahib Bus Service launched in March 2006 failed so miserably that Pakistan suggested that the two bus services, Amritsar-Lahore and Amritsar-Nankana Sahib be clubbed, in January 2007, barely a year after the launch of the latter service, just to cut the losses. Subsequently, the Amritsar-Nankana Sahib bus started taking a halt at Lahore from February 2008.

The reasons for the failure are quite clear: Travelling from Amritsar to Delhi, to secure a visa, is much longer - 500km - than actually travelling from Amritsar to Lahore (50km) and Nankana Sahib (75km). Apart from this, passengers need unnecessary security clearances. Interestingly, not a single Sikh devotee from Amritsar boarded the bus for pilgrimage to Nankana Sahib to celebrate the birth anniversary of Guru Nanak Dev in November 2011 due to police vetting and other formalities required to be undergone before boarding the bus.

Interestingly, even to cover a distance of 5km from Dera Baba Nanak (Indian Punjab) to the historical Gurdwara of Darbar Sahib in Kartarpur (Narowal District, Pakistan), where Guru Nanak spent the last 18 years of his life, Sikh pilgrims have to travel all the way to Delhi for a visa. While Pakistan has agreed to the demand for visafree pilgrimage and the ’Kartarpur religious corridor’ connecting the two shrines, provided tourists return the same day, India has yet to respond, even though reports have been carried out with regard to the feasibility of this corridor. The most detailed study was carried out by the US Institute of Multi-Track Diplomacy (IMTD). Politicians from across the political spectrum in Punjab have raised this issue but to no avail. Even if the government has security concerns, it could allow pilgrims on September 22, Guru Nank’s death anniversary .

The CBMs on other borders, not necessarily of a religious nature, such as the Rajasthan-Sind and two Kashmir ones, face similar problems. While the bus services from Kashmir have failed as a consequence of inordinate security checks, the Thar Express from Munnabao (Rajasthan) to Khokhrapar (Sind) has fared slightly better but passengers from Munnabao have to come all the way to Delhi when actually Karachi is closer to them than the state capital.

The best way of addressing this problem could be to have more Pakistani consulates in towns such as Jodhpur, Amritsar and Kanpur and add to the number of Indian consulates in Pakistan. Or visas can be issued twice a week in smaller towns from where there is adequate demand. This will be useful not only for tourists, but even businessmen and traders residing in the Punjabs, Rajasthan-Sind or the two Kashmirs. After all, just as trading via Dubai is a ridiculous idea, so is travelling a long distance just to secure visas.

Many Pakistanis also feels that while trade initiatives are a welcome development, it is important for India to make symbolic gestures such as increasing the number of visas issued to Pakistani tourists and other visitors. Post-Mumbai, India has become more stringent. Another point which needs to be mentioned here is that while Indian pilgrims visiting Pakistan are exempt from police reporting, Pakistanis are not. This is one major grudge of the latter which should be seriously examined by the Indian side.

Apart from religious visits, there are many who want to visit their erstwhile homes, and for such individuals sojourns to their native places are no less than pilgrimages. For example, in 2011, Pakistan-born Balbir Singh Bhasin, wrote to Pakistan President Asif Ali Zardari pleading for help in achieving, ’the last dream of my life (namely) to offer sajda (respect) to my zameen.’ Within a few days Bhasin was issued a visa by the Pakistan High Commission in India. The visit was an eye-opener for the septuagenarian as all he received was overwhelming warmth and hospitality. For individuals born before 1947 or over a certain age, it is important to seriously think of a visa-on-arrival and also to begin group tours for those from both sides who want to see their erstwhile homes.

Hopefully, this high-profile pilgrimage will play a role in making the not-so-high profile ones less arduous and cumbersome.

(Tridivesh Singh Maini is an Associate Fellow at Observer Research Foundation).

Courtesy: tehelka.com

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