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India asks Pak for list of 81 illegal immigrants
Rajeev Sharma
Tribune News Service

Lahore/Islamabad, February 17
Pakistan today informed India that it had 81 illegal imigrants from Punjab who were arrested while they were pushed back from Iran, while New Delhi asked for a list of the names of these 81 Punjabis and urged Pakistan to quickly grant them visas to travel to their homeland.

The issue was discussed here between External Affairs Minister K Natwar Singh and Pakistan Punjab, Chief Minister Pervez Ilahi, when the latter hosted a lunch in honour of the visiting Indian Minister.

As Mr Natwar Singh wrapped up his Pakistan visit today, two more important issues formed the core of his discussions with Pakistani leaders and officials in Islamabad and Lahore: (i) cricket and (ii) Lahore-Amritsar as well as Amritsar-Nankana Sahib bus services.

As regards cricket, the External Affairs Minister had a meeting with Pakistan Cricket Board Chairman Shaharyar Khan in Islamabad this morning. The PCB Chairman conveyed his reservations about his cricket team playing a test match in Ahmedabad. The External Affairs Minister told him that it was a matter to be decided between the PCB and the Board of Control for Cricket in India (BCCI) and it was up to the two boards whether the coming Indo-Pak series was deferred or rescheduled or its itinerary was changed.

It is understood that Mr Shaharyar Khan told Mr Natwar Singh that his team would be willing to play a test match in Mumbai (supposedly a Shiv Sena fortress) and could consider playing a one-dayer in Ahmedabad. The final decision is likely to be announced within the next 48 hours by the two boards after mutual consultations.

However, an impression gathered by the Indian side following the Natwar Singh-Shaharyar Khan meeting today was that the cricket series was very much on. India would be issuing more than 8,000 “cricket visas” and for this purpose would be setting up a visa camp in Lahore and two special visa counters in the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, officials said. The Government of India would be running special buses and trains from Wagah/Attari border to Mohali and could also consider special flights from Amritsar to Chandigarh, if needed.

A pointed clarification that came from the Indian side today was that Pakistanis would not be allowed to travel in their own vehciles from Lahore to Mohali to watch the match.

The issue of Lahore-Amritsar bus service, cleared by the two governments yesterday, came up for detailed discussions in Lahore during Mr Natwar Singh’s freewheeling talks with the Pakistan Punjab Chief Minister. It is understood that the Amritsar-Lahore bus service would be extended to the “agreed” religious places like Nankana Sahib on specified days or on special occasions.

A technical-level discussion between the two countries on this subject is going to take place next month. If all goes well, the bus service may be operationalised as early as this April.

The talks between the External Affairs Minister and Pakistan Punjab Chief Minister were held in “extremely good atmospherics”, coming as they did in the wake of the accord on Lahore-Amritsar bus service which led to jubilations and fireworks in both Punjabs. “It was not focussed-agenda talks. These were more of drawing room conversation,” an Indian official remarked. Mr Pervez Ilahi gifted to Mr Natwar Singh a large painting of a street scene in Lahore.

In Lahore, Mr Natwar Singh also held discussions with Pakistan Punjab Governor Lt-Gen Khalid Maqbool and addressed a reception held in his honour by the South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA).

At the SAFMA reception, the Mr Natwar Singh said that as a measure of its sincerity and goodwill, India has unilaterally liberalised the visa regime for Pakistani nationals to travel to India, including a system of visas on arrival for select categories. “We do not have such facility for nationals of any other country. We look forward to group tours very soon and are already implementing a special visa regime for Pakistani students to study in Indian educational instituions,” the minister said.

He pointed out that India’s conscious policy vis-a-vis Pakistan has been that of “people-centric” and to promote people-to-people exchanges. “There are natural affinities between our people, cultural commonalities and family relationships. After all, why is it that an Indian and a Pakistani strike natural friendship when outside the subcontinent? This is what we need to build upon.”

Mr Natwar Singh mentioned that a combined India-Pakistan cricket team would be unbeatable. “We need to build mutual trust. We need the cementing force of cooperative trade and economic links, based on the obvious complementarities that exist. Both President Musharaf and Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz underlined this aspect in their remarks to me,” he observed.

The External Affairs Minister returned to New Delhi this evening. In his arrival statement, Mr Natwar Singh said: “ It now seems that there is a groundswell of goodwill and positive sentiment among people in both our countries for a relationship free from hostility and bitterness. This has enabled our two Governments to conclude significant agreements towards building confidence and trust... No doubt, we have differences between us. I underlined to the Pakistani leaders that the peace process could only be sustained in an atmosphere free from violence and terrorism and that the solemn assurances contained in the January 6, 2004 Joint Statement must be implemented fully.”

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