Thousands of Indians are planning visits to Pakistan to watch India's first cricket tour of the country in 14 years. The recent peace moves between the two South Asian rivals have prompted a large number of visitors from both countries to cross the border, and not just sports fans.
The tiny counter outside the Pakistan High Commission (embassy) in New Delhi has never been flooded with so many visa requests. The subcontinent's famed passion for cricket has prompted hundreds of Indians to line up patiently outside the building for travel documents to watch cricket matches that the two countries start playing March 13.
The matches are being seen as confidence-building measures that will spur a fragile peace process between the two countries. And it is not just cricket mania behind the enthusiasm of Indian visitors. Pakistan has promised to provide visas to everyone going to see the matches - the offer has prompted hundreds of Indians to seize the opportunity to make a so-called "journey of discovery" to the other side.
The Indian subcontinent was divided between mostly Hindu India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan in 1947, prompting tens of thousands of families to migrate from one side to the other.
School teacher Shalini Arora plans to visit the Pakistani city of Lahore with a 13-member contingent from her family that includes her parents, brothers and their children. She says her grandparents migrated to India from Pakistan, and they all want to see the "homeland".
“We are very excited about it. Our parents came from there, they tell us stories, we just want to go there,” says Mr. Arora. “[The cricket] match is obviously an excuse for going there, but basically we want to see Pakistan.”
Many others echo her sentiments. The rush to visit Pakistan symbolizes the changing mood as both countries try to ease five decades of political hostility. Transport links between the neighbors were cut off after they came close to war in December 2001, bringing the small trickle of visitors between the two countries to a virtual halt.
But now travel links are open again, and both sides are talking the language of peace. That has given a new momentum for "people to people" contact between the two countries. In recent months hundreds of teachers, peace activists, artists, students, and businessmen from both sides have been crossing the border.
This month, India organized a trade exhibition that exclusively displayed goods brought by Pakistani businessmen. It was dubbed the first-ever "Made in Pakistan" exhibition in India. Two other Pakistani business delegations brought more than 300 delegates to the Indian capital in the last two weeks.
Pakistani businessmen want to know if the annual trade of $200 million between the two countries can be stepped up. Anjum Nisar, President of the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry, is optimistic that the similarities between the people of the two countries could be a great asset in building business ties. “The complexion, food, cuisine, language so many things are common it is sometimes hard to believe who is India and who is Pakistani,” says Mr. Nisar. “We want that business in this region should flourish, joint ventures should happen, if we can go to invest in China and other countries, why not in India and Pakistan.”
Many are not sure if past hostility will allow business to blossom. But India's Disinvestment Minister, Arun Shourie says increased trade could be the best way to change what he called the "accident-prone" relationship between the two countries.”Hostility between our countries is one of the major things that distracts us,” he says. “So the greater the trade, the lesser the chances that we will be all the time jolted away from the development on which we should be focusing.”
Some say the stepped-up flow of people between the two countries symbolizes the desire for a normal relationship among ordinary people. Shahid Hussain Khan comes to the Indian capital from Pakistan to display furniture at the trade exhibition. He says people want an end to the political hostility between the two countries. “All the people they are good, they love each other because they want good relations between two countries,” he says. “They are fed up from this [political hostility], mostly people jobless here also and there also, so the people want to see some development in both countries.”
There are many skeptics who believe that warmer relations between the citizens of both countries will do little to change the difficult situation between the South Asian rivals. But others say such contacts can help build bridges between the two sides as they try to sustain a peace process that could encounter many hurdles.