Pakistan and India have announced that they will ease tough visa restrictions, an important step forward in improving relations between the nuclear armed neighbours, their foreign ministers have said.
The agreement, announced on Saturday, was the culmination of a visit by Indian Foreign Minister SM Krishna to Pakistan as part of a tentative peace process that froze after Pakistani fighters attacked the Indian city of Mumbai in 2008, killing 166 people.
A joint statement welcomed the signing of the new visa agreement which introduces a number of measures “aimed at easing travel of business persons, tourists, pilgrims, elderly and children, thereby facilitating contacts between peoples of the two countries”.
“We will move forward… We will not be held hostage to history,” Pakistani Foreign Minister Hina Rabbani Khar told a joint news conference with Krishna after signing the agreement.
New visa regime
Businessmen and women from either country will now be able to travel to more cities. Earlier, they were restricted to only three cities.
Those above the age of 65 and children up to the age of 12 will get a visa on arrival if they are travelling by land.
And for the first time, both sides will issue Group-Tourist Visas and a special visa for pilgrims.
“We must learn from the past and not miss any more opportunities. Pakistan is committed not to lose any opportunities. Pakistan is committed to creating new opportunities,” she said.
The new pact offers eight types of visas. Pakistanis visiting neighbouring India have long grumbled about New Delhi’s restrictive visa regimen for both tourists and businesses.
Pakistani businessmen are restricted to particular cities, so visitors cannot travel from Delhi to the nearby thriving business hub of Gurgaon without permission.
Businessmen also have to report to an Indian police station in the evenings “like a criminal,” Pakistani trade official
Zafar Mahmood complained in April.
Indians visiting Pakistan face similar restrictions on moving between cities.
‘Commitment’ on Mumbai trial
The joint statement also referred to a “commitment” given by Pakistan last May to bring the perpetrators of the Mumbai attacks to justice “expeditiously”.
Pakistan charged the seven men over the 2008 Mumbai attacks in 2009, but insists it needs to gather more evidence in India before proceeding further.
New Delhi has branded Pakistan’s attempts at prosecuting the alleged conspirators a “facade” and insists it has already handed over enough evidence to convict the accused.
Tariq Pirzada, a strategic affairs analyst, told Al Jazeera that although the visa restrictions have been eased and that the economic relationship between India and Pakistan will improve, the changes are “cosmetic” ones.
“The reality remains that this meeting between the two foreign ministers…has not resulted in any substantive or even semi-substantive progress on the core of the fundamental issues that divide the two nations,” said Pirzada.
He added that there has been easing of travel restrictions in the past, but that the problems between the two countries seem to come to a boil once every 20 years.
“The two sides have not even agreed on the timetable of discussing the issue of Kashmir,” said Pirzada.
The issues between the two countries include a long-running dispute over the mountainous province of Kashmir, currently divided between the two nations; Indian dams that Pakistanis say threaten their water supply and threats of more attacks like those in Mumbai from groups allegedly operating from Pakistan.
India and Pakistan have gone to war three times since Pakistan split off from India in 1947, which tore many families apart. The restrictions have been in place ever since.
But relations have improved somewhat in the last two years, especially with respect to trade, as Pakistan promised India most-favoured nation trading status last year.
In April, Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari visited India, the first trip by a Pakistani head of state in seven years.