NEW DELHI – Pakistan and India sealed an agreement to ease tough visa restrictions for travellers on Friday.
The accord was signed by Interior Minister Rehman Malik and his Indian counterpart, weeks before the two cricket-loving nations play their first series in India since the Mumbai attacks.
“This is not only historic but this is a step forward for the two countries in the progress of peace,” said Malik during a three-day visit to New Delhi.
Under the previous arrangement, Pakistani business travellers were restricted to certain cities, prohibiting their travel from Delhi to the nearby thriving business hub of Gurgaon without permission.
Businessmen had to report to Indian police stations in the evenings ‘like a criminal’, Pakistani trade official Zafar Mahmood complained in April during a Pakistani trade fair in New Delhi. Indians visiting Pakistan face similar restrictions.
The change will permit visitors to travel to five places now instead of three and some businessmen will get multiple-entry visas, exempting them from reporting to the police.
The two governments agreed to relax visa rules in principle in September, when former Indian foreign minister SM Krishna visited Islamabad.
Malik promised India that Pakistan would convict those responsible for the 2008 attacks. “We do not want 9/11, Mumbai attacks, Samjhauta Express blast. We do not want Babri Masjid issue,” Malik said in the presence of Indian Home Minister Sushilkumar Shinde.
Malik added a discordant note when he referred to the December 6, 1992, Babri Masjid demolition along with the reference to 9/11 attack, 26/11 Mumabi attacks and the Samjhauta Express blast of 2007.
Malik dismissed Indian charges that Pakistanis had tortured and mutilated Indian soldier Saurab Kalia during the 1999 Kargil conflict.
“Pakistan and India have to be friends,” Malik said after arriving from Islamabad, his landing delayed by about four hours owing to clearance by Indian Air Force. “I come with a message of love and peace from the people of Pakistan.”
Malik said because of interactions between the leaders of India and Pakistan, the “journey to peace is progressing very well,” and gave credit to President Asif Ali Zardari and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.
The Pakistani minister invited the Indian prime minister to visit Pakistan.
He also questioned the Indian evidence on Lashkar-e-Taiba leader Hafiz Saeed. Malik said the evidence provided by India linking Saeed with the Mumbai attacks was not enough to stand scrutiny in a court. “Just a statement from (hanged Pakistani terrorist Ajmal Amir) Kasab is not enough. We have to follow the law of the land. And of course (satisfy) the court ... There has been a lot of propaganda about Hafiz Saeed.
“But if India provided credible evidence, I will order his arrest even before returning home. We have no love lost for Hafiz Saeed.”
Besides the revised visa agreement, the two countries have also discussed counter-terrorism, border management, fake currency and cooperation among security and investigation agencies.
He said he would discuss with Indian Home Minister Shinde ways to facilitate the entry of Indians and Pakistanis into each other’s territory once the new visa regime became operational.
On Kasab’s hanging, he said “we have categorically stated that we should respect each other’s court verdicts.”
He assured Sarabjit Singh’s family he would arrange their meeting with the prisoner on death row at the Lahore jail. Malik told Sarabjit’s family he would ensure they got a visa to travel to Pakistan and meet him in jail.
Shinde said, “Promises were made in the past also but not fulfilled by the Pakistan government.”
Malik is in India for a three-day visit. His arrival was delayed because the Indian Air Force denied permission to his military plane to land at the Palam Technical Airport for technical reasons. The minister’s plane then landed at Delhi’s T-3 international airport.