Visa issues, Kashmir and the ‘new great game’ between India and Pakistan

The question of why the United States does not stand up for its citizens of Indian and Pakistani origin when these citizens are denied visas because of their origins has yet to receive an answer

By Sabahat Ashraf

9 March 2023: When the moderator at an intriguingly titled discussion on ‘The New Great Game: India, Pakistan and the Search for Enduring Peace’ asked the panelists what America can do to help ease tensions between India and Pakistan, one response was that Washington could urge both governments to grant visas to citizens from the other side. 

But the panelist Beena Sarwar’s passionate plea for visas left out a crucial aspect of what America can do that would benefit members of the diaspora with families on both sides of the border — pressurise India and Pakistan to grant visas to US citizens, at the very least. 

Many of us have long been asking why the United States does not stand up for its citizens of Indian and Pakistani origin when these citizens are denied visas because of their origins. We have yet to receive an answer.

The discussion took place at The Commonwealth Club, which prides itself as being the oldest and largest public affairs forum in America. Housed in a stately waterfront building in San Francisco, it holds hundreds of discussions every year in its four auditoriums, on topics ranging from politics to culture, from popular events to the economy. 

The Club also happens to be located in a city and region with a Southasian presence dating back over a century. The Ghadar Party was launched here, its artifacts housed in a small museum in the city.

As audience and panelists mingled after the event with the bonhomie of any crowd of mixed Southasian origins, there were warm greetings plus reminiscences as common acquaintances and family connections surfaced. 

Joining in, a Caucasian woman wearing a face mask expressed her surprise at learning just how difficult it is for Indians and Pakistanis to obtain visas to each other’s countries, even if they are US citizens. Even as a US Foreign Service official, now retired, she had no idea of this.

“That’s a really good point,” she said to the question of why the US government doesn’t stand up for its citizens and US passport-holders and address the treatment of American citizens of Southasian origin by the “other” governments back home. 

L-R: Moderator Dr Kalidip Choudhury, journalists Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal and Beena Sarwar, retired diplomats Nirupama Rao and Abdul Basit.

While Pakistan does grant pilgrimage visas to Hindu and Sikh yatris visiting temples and gurudwaras in its territory, those are the exceptional category. 

India treats American citizens with even one grandparent who has held Pakistani citizenship differently from other American citizens. For such citizens, like my US-born children who have an Indian mother, the process of obtaining an Indian visa can take up to six months even to visit their maternal family in India. 

There have always been extra forms, lines and processes, but I now look back wistfully at the late 1980s when I lined up at the Indian Consulate in Karachi at 4 am with a form in quadruplicate, and had a visa by the evening. Or applying by mail in California and receiving visas for my mixed family with its three nationalities in the early 2000s. Of course, this was all before the 2008 terrorist attack in Mumbai. 

There was talk at this panel about “soft borders” and a “South Asian Union”. Personally I wish we had what the diplomatic world calls “normal relations” with a “normal” visa regime so I can say a prayer at my grandfather’s grave. And I am not alone. There are millions on both sides of the border. That is, besides the managers at major IT companies in the US whose careers are adversely impacted by the difficulties in visiting the teams they work with in India.

The panel featured people who have been involved with the peace process between the countries at one stage or another — two journalists and two retired diplomats from Pakistan and India. Moderating the panel was Kalidip Choudhury, PhD, a former Fellow at Stanford University. 

Besides Beena Sarwar, editor Aman ki Asha, Nieman Fellow at Harvard University, and founder-curator of the Southasia Peace Action Network, or Sapan, the other journalist was Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal, executive editor of Kashmir Times, currently Lyle and Corrine Nelson International Fellow at Stanford. 

The retired diplomats were Abdul Basit, former Pakistani ambassador to India and author of Hostility: A Diplomat’s Journey on Pakistan-India Relations, and Nirupama Rao, former India Foreign Secretary, author of The Fractured Himalayas: India, Tibet, and China.

The event last Thursday was framed in terms familiar to anyone following India, Pakistan, or the dynamic between the two nuclear-armed neighbours. How President Bill Clinton called the border between these countries the most dangerous place on Earth. How many times they have gone to war and the trail of peace talks over the decades. 

But this was the Commonwealth Club, and there was also awareness of the issues of oil, gas, and the Chinese effort to build a road network to revive old Silk Route pathways. And of course, new rivalries between India and China, China and the US… and Kashmir. Always Kashmir. 

“Kashmir is both a cause and a consequence,” said Anuradha Bhasin, stressing that “dismemberment should not be an excuse for disengagement”. She reminded the audience that in a region of 20 million souls the territories in India’s domain constitute 14 million and that a slice of the Kashmir Valley and the area of Gilgit-Baltistan are in Pakistan’s domain.

As a Pakistani walking into the Commonwealth Club, I was also reminded of the vision of Pakistan and its role in a Western-dominated world. I had long been searching for a recording of a speech on this topic by Pakistan’s first Prime Minister Nawabzada Liaquat Ali Khan, addressing the Club on 16 May 1950. 

The latest panel covered issues ranging from politics, the economy, culture and society, to the media, foreign relations and other areas in relation to the India-Pakistan dynamics. Speakers shared personal insights and experiences. 

The diplomats engaged civilly enough, but as expected, held on to their respective countries’ official narratives, the complexities, and difficulties in dealing with the other side. The journalists were able to educate the audience on the struggle to inform and educate their readers, as well as insights into how society, the media and the economy play into the dynamic.

Moderator Kalidip Choudhury, who began the crisp hour-long session with slides and brief remarks setting the context, ended with a few questions from the audience. 

Afterwards, as audience members and panelists converged, a few queries to Commonwealth Club personnel and their audiovisual team yielded a lead to the Hoover Institution’s library and archives where I found an audio recording of Liaquat Ali Khan’s 1950 speech (in three parts).

This alone made my participation in the event worthwhile. And if the retired diplomat takes up the visa issue with her colleagues in the US Foreign Office and someone does something about it, this event at the Commonwealth Club will have made a huge contribution to a good cause.

Sabahat Ashraf is a technical writer in Silicon Valley — a ‘Californian, Pakistani-American, Karachiite/Muhajir, Awadhi by culture, Nigerian by birth.’ He has worked in technology and media in Pakistan and has extensive family and close friends in both India and Pakistan. Twitter: @iFaqeer 

Lead image: Panelists in-person and online — moderator Dr Kalidip Choudhury, journalists Anuradha Bhasin Jamwal and Beena Sarwar, retired diplomats Nirupama Rao and Abdul Basit. Photo: S. Faraz Darvesh

This is a Sapan News syndicated feature.

Note on Southasia as one word: Following the lead of Himal Southasian, Sapan News Network uses ‘Southasia’ as one word, “seeking to restore some of the historical unity of our common living space, without wishing any violence on the existing nation states”. Writing Sapan like this rather than all caps makes it a word that means ‘dream’.

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1 Comment

  1. I believe U.K. citizens have the same problem. Someone I know has been a British citizen for over 40 years, but the fact that the city in Bangladesh where he was born was Pakistan when he became a British citizen, prevents him from getting an Indian IOC card. Doesn’t matter that it was all part of the British empire when he was born!


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