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Tea, cricket and tourism: The degree of the thaw in Indian-Pakistani relations Add to ...

Cricket matches, visits to grandma and record shipments of tea leaves – are these the signs of progress in one of the world’s longest-running and most intractable international disputes?

An optimist might see signs of a substantial thaw in relations between India and Pakistan these days. Next week, the home secretaries of the two countries are slated to announce that, for the first time ever, tourist visas will routinely be made available to each other’s citizens. They are also set to ease restrictions on visas to visit family: while a great many people in both countries have relatives on the other side of the restive border (a legacy of Partition), it is at present a torturously difficult process to obtain a visa to visit, and many families have not met face to face since the territorial line was drawn in 1947.

The changes should take effect by August, according to India’s Ministry of External Affairs. The new visa regimen includes “group tourist visas” for groups of between 10 and 50 people; they must use a government-approved tour operator. Children and senior citizens will be able to obtain visas on arrival at the lone land border crossing between the two nations, near Amritsar. Business travellers will be able to obtain a two-year multiple-entry visa, substantially streamlining a capricious and bureaucratic procedure that has been the bane of the business communities on both sides of the border.

That change comes as both governments have been steadily removing trade restrictions, after Pakistan finally acted late last year on a 15-year-old pledge to grant India most-favoured-nation status. Indian tea exports, among other items, are at their highest level ever. In April, the Indian cabinet signed off on allowing foreign direct investment from Pakistan and a new commercial clearing facility was added at the land border.

There is more enthusiasm in Indian than Pakistan for the commercial ties, since the Indian economy is growing much faster and small Pakistani businesses worry that they can’t compete against cheaper Indian imports, since India subsidizes inputs such as electricity.

But another change has cheered Pakistanis immensely: Indian cricket’s governing body has ruled that Pakistan’s top club team, the Sialkot Stallions, will be included in the Champions League competition that will be played in India in October. The invitation requires the nod of the foreign ministry.

Cricket ties, like trade and diplomatic ones, were frozen after a group of young Pakistani Islamists launched 11 co-ordinated attacks in Mumbai in November 2008, killing 164 people. When Pakistan made the semi-finals of the cricket World Cup last year and was slated to play India, the cricket ban was temporarily lifted for a game in a heavily-fortified Punjab stadium, a match which became a diplomatic triumph as well as a sporting carnival.

But Pakistan has until now remained otherwise shut out of cricket’s International Premier League (IPL) circuit. When Pakistani president Asif Ali Zardari met here with Indian Prime Minister, Manmohan Singh, cricket was on his list of critical issues to be addressed.

No international cricket team has played in Pakistan since Islamist attackers targeted the Sri Lankan national team in Lahore in 2009, and Pakistanis feel their isolation from the sport keenly. Rajiv Shukla, chair of the IPL governing council, said Pakistan has been petitioning for inclusion for years. “We felt it was a good time to invite them,” Mr. Shukla – who, it bears noting, is also a senior politician in the governing Indian National Congress – told reporters last week.

All of this – trade, cricket and tourism – is seen as a way to build trust and ties between the two countries and thus lower the possibility of a return to hostilities. But the bedrock issues that underlie the dispute – the territorial grievance over Kashmir, and the Islamist proxy war that Pakistan has waged over it – are no closer to resolution.

Officials from both countries were meant to meet last week to discuss the disputed Sir Creek, a crucial maritime border, but Pakistan pulled out of those talks. And after Pakistan lost 139 soldiers and civilian support staff in an avalanche on the Siachen glacier last month, its military appealed for talks to resolve the standoff on the world’s highest battlefield. But India has rejected that invitation, insisting Pakistan must first acknowledge India’s right to its higher, more strategically valuable position before its military will budge – a hardline position that leaves little room for diplomatic negotiation.

And that’s the one track where there is no visible sign of a thaw.

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