In a region mired in conflict, it takes all the more courage, and perseverance to be the voice of the voiceless, and to separate facts from propaganda. Help The Kashmir Monitor sustain so that we continue to be editorially independent. Remember, your contributions, however small they may be, matter to us.

Religious tourism way forward

By Wajid Shamsul Hasan

One morning in 2008 I received a call on my mobile from a desperate lady in London. She was a Sikh Yatree, one of the groups of 20 that had planned for their holy visit to Nankana Sahib in Pakistan. They had months in advance booking with PIA but they had no visa. According to the lady a dozen trips to the PHC in Lowndes Square had proved futile. PHC was waiting to get a clearance NOC from Ministry of Interior to give them visas. Time was running out. Their flight was just two days later and they had no news of NOC. If they had no visa and they could not travel, PIA tickets would expire and money would be wasted.

I was in my car, I requested the lady to meet me in PHC office at 11 am. Immediately I made inquiries, Deputy High Commissioner informed me that PHC cannot issue any visa to Sikh Yatrees or any Indian unless cleared by the Ministry of Interior from Islamabad and that despite repeated calls, the file does not move fast enough.
Since they had no time and my officer was sure that Ministry would not respond any earlier than another month or so, I had only one option to provide the group of 20 relief — use my own discretionary powers. My Staff Officer received the Sikh lady with 19 others when they arrived promptly at 11 am at the PHC. I found them to be in tears. It seemed to be a frustrating experience for them. I could see desperation on their faces. When I instructed my officer to collect their passports and have their visas issued under my authority in an hour’s time, their faces glowed as if they had already been on a holy pilgrimage.

Having done that, I asked my relevant staff to let me know how many Sikhs sought visas from us to visit Nankana Sahib and other holy places. It was a sizeable count. And invariably visas were issued to two out of ten applicants and that too after months of delay. To me this was not good, bad PR and a sad reflection on our standard of efficiency.

I took up the matter with the Foreign Office, they blamed Ministry of Interior for delay. I talked to the Secretary Interior; he had a typical bureaucratic response as to why we in London were keen to give visas to Indians when they don’t issue any visas to British Pakistanis. I know Indians were stricter and to get an Indian visa for a British Pakistani was good enough to get a free passage to moon. They were so strict that some English Parliamentarians seeking Indian visas for their Pakistani British constituents used to mistakenly approach me as if I had some clout with my Indian counterpart. To sum it up, whether east or west, visa regime is nearly the same.

In a CNN report in late 2001, until the terrorist attack on Indian Parliament, I learnt the extent and magnitude of Indian tourism trade. It was over Rs 10,000crore per year. The attack on Indian Parliament followed by travel advisories by the British, American, European and other tourist countries brought down number the of tourists by merely a few thousand. It also signalled the worst period of stand-off between India and Pakistan. It seemed the two countries could go to war any time.

Both being nuclear powers it could lead them to three minutes to boom and doom. However, Americans intervened to save the situation from crossing the edge of precipice.

These were times when the Indian economy had attained newer heights of progress and unprecedented growth rate especially in the IT industry. Bangalore in India had earned the world-wide reputation of a bigger Silicone Valley and a rich venue of outsourcing. Obviously, the stand-off between India and Pakistan was a major concern causing sleepless nights to big business. When things looked bleak, a delegation of IT and other top industrialists led by IT Tycoon Azeem Preemjee called on the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee to seek his indulgence for defusing the stand-off.

In one voice they appraised the Prime Minister, what could a conventional war with enough potential to become a nuclear conflict end up with? According to them India would be the major loser as it has achieved much in IT and a single nuclear device dropped at Bangalore would reverse, by a hundred years, the cycle of India’s industrial progress and gigantic economic growth whereas even if India managed to destroy half of Pakistan, it would not lose much as it has not much economic development to lose. Vajpayee, being a very shrewd politician and statesman opted to defuse the stand-off. His policy planners took to other recourse — a scheme of things to bleed Pakistan internally through proxies — the same proxies that Pakistan had nurtured and nourished in its backyard to bite others.

Regretfully both India and Pakistan have remained engaged in a roller coaster relationship since the signing of Simla agreement in July 1972, which has given the sub-continent unprecedented peace notwithstanding the civil war in Indian Occupied Kashmir. Indeed, it is time for both the countries, as they have done now over the Kartarpur Corridor of peace to negotiate a joint policy of promoting religious tourism in both the countries since both have rich troves of ancient civilisations, cultures, saints and their shrines that are visited by hundreds and thousands of people from both sides.

One must appreciate that the initiative for Kartarpur Peace corridor came from the army chief General Qamar Javed Bajwa and since Prime Minister Khan claims, Army is backing him — lets hope Kartarpur proves to be a major trajectory for peace in the region. Both Pakistan and India should sign an agreement to establish joint commission for promotion of religious tourism and allow visa free visits to holy places.

One may recall here that following the London incident of visa for Sikh yatrees mentioned earlier, on a report by the London mission President Zardari through his Secretary General Salman Farooqui, took various constructive steps to make pilgrims tear free and Nankana Sahib had its first doze of development. Besides, there is also urgent need for huge funding for the maintenance of the historic sites, establishment of proper, cleaner and affordable boarding and lodging facilities. We must remember accommodation to each other’s religious beliefs, would give a crippling blow to religious hatred by bigoted groups.