(This column was published in DNA edition dated January 5, 2011.)
The ex-Beatle and irremediable peacenik John Lennon, who was murdered 30 years ago last month, wanted us to imagine a world without countries (or religions or possessions). There’s evidently a big market around the world for syrupy sentimentalism of that sort, which accounts for why Imagine became something of a “global anthem”. Heck, there’s even an ice-cream flavour, complete with chocolate peace symbols, called Imagine Whirled Peace.
But nearly 40 years after Lennon’s song was released, his maudlin musings are in a bit of a bear market – as anyone who has contemplated overseas travel or has dealt with surly immigration officials knows. The idea of the nation-state has become stronger than ever, and is reinforced forcefully every time we pass through the shadowlines of the border controls that separate countries – or submit ourselves to retinal scanning and finger-printing procedures as part of the visa application ritual.
The news, therefore, that the Indian government has extended the visa-on-arrival facility to visitors from four southeast Asian countries – Cambodia, Laos, Philippines and Vietnam – from January 1 goes against the trend of countries fortifying their border controls, the better to keep out whimsical visitors. The move is particularly welcome because for a country that has ancient civilisational links with southeast Asia, India enjoys tenuous people-to-people relations with the region. Closer tourism ties, which are the desired outcome of the relaxation of visa controls of the sorts that have been introduced, should remedy that historical failing somewhat.
In an earlier era, Indians applying for visas to countries in the developed West would queue up on the roads outside embassies or consulates overnight to get their foot in at the door and beat the daily visa quota. These days, thanks to outsourced arrangements for visa processing, one subjects oneself to far less of that kind of ritual self-abuse. Even so, it’s hard for us to understand the ease of mobility that comes with holding certain passports. Hong Kong passport holders, for instance, are so unused to applying ahead for visas – since their passport qualifies them for visa-free entry or visa-on-arrival to most countries – that there are several instances of travellers to India who have turned up at the airline check-in counter only to be turned away because they didn’t have an Indian visa and didn’t know they needed one!
Hong Kong, in fact, is one of the few places in the developed world today where Indian passport holders get 14 days’ visa-free entry: that’s induced many more Indians to travel to Hong Kong, and has accounted for an 80 per cent increase in Indian traffic to the local Disneyland – where, as a concession to Indian tastes, the restaurants now even serve curry buffets…
In such a context, India’s gradual easing of visa provisions for visitors, particularly from pacific countries, is a measure of its increased confidence and of mature commercial diplomacy at work. Apart from bringing in tourism revenue, it has the potential to deepen India’s social engagement with countries in the southeast Asian region that are looking to hedge themselves against the rise of China, particularly after a year in which China “stomped around the world with a big stick”.
So, although a Lennon-esque world without countries or border controls may yet be unrealisable, there’s still the hope that a world where visas-on-arrival make for greater ease of travel is still within our grasp. Imagine that!