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'Governments need to follow, not lead, young people who want travel liberalized in South Asia'

  • Published at 11:41 pm October 15th, 2021
Bangladesh-India border; BGB-BSF
FILE PHOTO: Members of Border Guard Bangladesh (BGB) and India’s Border Security Force (BSF) are seen during a flag ceremony Syed Zakir Hossain/Dhaka Tribune

Indian High Commissioner Vikram Doraiswami says he is doing everything he can to help Bangladeshis who need to travel to India. And he thinks young people across South Asia can take it further. This is the conclusion of his interview series with Adam Pitman, exclusive to Dhaka Tribune

Applying for a visa is a humbling process. No more so than in South Asia. 

Whether you want to visit family, get medical treatment, or do business across the border, your plans are at the mercy of an immigration officer who has heard it all before.   

It's almost taboo to talk about the ways travel could become easier in South Asia. And yet, this is exactly what some young people are starting to do. 

Earlier this year, Rushali Saha, an India-based researcher, wrote that "India's Visa Policy Can Better Reflect Neighborhood First" in South Asian Voices. 

She had a good point. 

The high commissioner says he is doing everything he can to help Bangladeshis who need to travel to India. I believe him. And when I read between the lines, I think it looks like he doesn't have the political support he, and others like him, need to take it further and integrate South Asia. 

DT: Smart young people are starting to look at South Asia differently. They value freedom of movement. They see their opportunities clearly. And they want liberalized visa regimes. It makes economic sense. What needs to happen to make it a reality?   

Doraiswami: I am personally very sympathetic to this goal. 

The younger generation on both sides has inherited the baggage of the past, but the good news is that they do not necessarily have to carry these burdens on their own backs. 

Also Read - 'Bangladesh set for massive income growth when India trade, connectivity deals go through'

And I think this is the strength of the youth on both sides: they are confident in their identity, and comfortable with it, and they are focused on the future, not fixated on the past. 

It is in this context that I'm glad to say that nearly 1.8 million visas were issued by India for tourism, study, family visits, business and even medical care, in the pre-pandemic period. 

Also Read - 'A trade deal with Bangladesh is a top priority for India'

As to further liberalization, I am personally hopeful that as our bilateral ties continue to reach newer heights and as people find new and better opportunities to work with each other, we can aim for even further liberalization of travel regulations.  

Indian High Commissioner in Bangladesh Vikram Doraiswami is seen speaking at an event in Dhaka in this February 2021 photo Focus BanglaEven in the current pandemic context, we have issued over 300,000 visas in Bangladesh over the past six months, despite lockdowns and the closure of the land border from this side. This has been no small achievement, given the challenges keeping our visa operations running during lockdowns, so that at least emergency and medical services were not stopped. 

Also Read - 'We want more trade, travel, cooperation with Bangladesh, but ‘urban myths’ aren't helping'

In point of fact, Bangladesh is already our largest visa operation in the world, which we service through 15 visa application collection centres nationwide, and five diplomatic posts, including our mission in Dhaka. 

Looking ahead though, I believe that as our two nations move to an era of comfort with our own respective national identities,  and our own sense of nationhood, we will be able to work toward the kind of institutional cooperation between regulatory agencies that can help make travel easier, simpler and more seamless. 

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We have a regular consular dialogue -- last held in January 2021 -- and a home secretary dialogue -- last held in March 2021 -- to discuss these matters. 

On a personal, somewhat philosophical note, I'd like to say that I believe that this is an inevitable, if evolutionary trend, toward which our comparatively young, very Westphalian nations,  are already moving.  

Also Read - 'It is important for Bangladesh to engage with India at the state as well as central level'

For now, it is a process that is being driven by economics, and to some extent, the information revolution. But it is being hindered too, by the hesitations of history and the burdens of our shared past. 

I believe the younger generation, on both sides, will instinctively work to de-politicize this process and actually provide it an impetus. 

Also Read - 'It is important to filter political rhetoric from action on the ground'

This generation, which is less predisposed to carrying the baggage of our complex South Asian modern history, will be best placed to drive this transformation. 

And in my personal view again, it would be good for governments to follow in this regard, rather than attempt to lead this process. 

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