If you’re thinking of visiting a foreign country, the process is fairly straightforward: You apply for a visa, make travel arrangements and you’re off. But in the case of Pakistan and India, it’s like walking into a minefield.
Just as Pakistan Cricket Board chairman Shahryar Khan found out to his chagrin on Saturday night, when he was held up by immigration officials at Kolkata airport for several hours simply because he arrived in the country through the wrong port of entry.
At one point, the immigration officials even suggested Khan and his wife should take an Emirates flight to Dubai and return from there to Delhi. Once Khan completed immigration formalities at Delhi airport, he could fly again to Kolkata, the officials suggested helpfully.
But then the former Pakistani foreign secretary is a connected man, and a few phone calls later, he was safely ensconced in a comfortable hotel – but only after he handed over a signed statement that he and his wife would leave Kolkata on Sunday and exit India from New Delhi.
And he was graceful enough not to hold a grudge, telling The Telegraph: "I'd call it a small glitch and, even though we are very tired, I don't hold the happenings against anybody."
Now imagine what happens when an ordinary Indian or Pakistani decides to travel to the other side. Once the usual objections from the family are overcome (“Are you sure you want to go to India/Pakistan? It could be dangerous over there!”), there is the humongous task of actually getting a visa.
In the case of an Indian visa, the average processing time for an application is 35 days though the process can sometimes take longer. The process on the Pakistani side takes just about as long, unless of course there are folks in Islamabad who do not want you to visit.
Then there are the documents: A letter from the person sponsoring the visit, copies of electricity bills or gas bills or telephone bills as proof of address and other documents as proof of identity. For an Indian visa, the sponsorship letter has to be countersigned by an Indian government official.
Just about the only consolation is the visa fee – till a few years ago, it was Rs 15, before being hiked to Rs 120.
Then there’s the wait, following which you get a visa that specifically lists the port of entry and exit and the cities you can visit. And even the Lord can’t help you if you mess things up, as it happened in the case of Shahryar Khan despite him having a special SAARC visa.
If you are fortunate enough to know people in high and mighty places who can pull a few strings, you will get what is known as an “exempted from police reporting” visa. Or else you go and report to the police at a designated police station for every city you visit in India or Pakistan.
The craziness doesn’t end there. If you’re a Pakistani in Delhi and want to go hit the malls in Gurgaon or Noida, you need to get special permission if your visa is city-specific one for Delhi.
Conversely, if you’re an Indian in Islamabad and want to go to Rawalpindi for shopping or to meet friends, you’re required to apply for permission a week to 10 days in advance even though the two cities are divided by a drive of about 25 minutes.
But the funny thing is if you want to go to the “Islamabad airport”, which is actually in Rawalpindi adjacent to the Chaklala military airbase, you need no permission – you just get into a car and drive down.
Though the Pakistani visa will tell you that can’t enter cantonments and other restricted areas, once you arrive at Lahore airport from Delhi, you have to drive through a cantonment to reach Pakistan’s cultural capital.
Though India and Pakistan agreed in 2012 to liberalise their visa regimes, especially for senior citizens, minors, business visitors and groups of tourists, things still haven’t taken off.
There was also talk of more entry points, a direct flight from Islamabad to Delhi and a ferry between Mumbai and Karachi but these too are yet to see the light of day.
In the interim, all we can possibly say is Inshallah, things will get better. But I’m not holding my breath.
(The views expressed by the writer are personal. He tweets as @rezhasan)