The visa problems of India’s friends – Shashi Tharoor

Shashi Tharoor“The initial application of the new visa regulation pointed to its obvious absurdity; a man who had been in India to attend to his gravely ailing mother was not allowed to re-enter to attend her funeral because two months had not elapsed since his previous visit; a couple who had left their bags at a Mumbai hotel to make an overnight visit to Sri Lanka were not allowed to come back even to collect their luggage; in another case, an NRI who had come to India to get engaged was not permitted to return for his own wedding!” – Shashi Tharoor

I am, I am told, principally guilty for having introduced the idea of the importance of India’s “soft power” into the public discourse of our country.

My rationale for applying the American academic Joseph Nye’s ideas to India (initially in a series of speeches at the dawn of the new millennium) lay in my conviction that India’s biggest asset in the world was not merely our rising power in conventional terms or our consistent economic growth in the last two decades; it was, I felt, the attractiveness of our culture, values, cuisine, music, clothes, films, yoga and so on to the rest of the world.

This argument is now widely accepted. The general view is that India’s rise is seen as non-threatening around the world, and that our cultural products — from Bollywood to bhel puri — make people of various nationalities feel well-disposed to India. In the information era, it is not the land with the bigger Army that prevails, but the one with a better story to tell about itself. India, most people would agree, by comparison with most of its neighbours and rivals, is the “land of the better story”.

It must be admitted, however, that in one major area of soft power failure, India has only itself to blame. If soft power is about making your country attractive to foreigners, the Indian bureaucracy seems determined to do everything in its (not inconsiderable) power to achieve the opposite effect, in the way in which it treats foreigners wishing to travel to or reside in India.

Visa processes, already time-consuming, unnecessarily demanding and expensive, have become far more cumbersome. This is now the most enduring bureaucratic consequence of the government’s reaction to the Mumbai terror attacks of 26/11.

Travellers on tourist visas may now not return to India for a period of at least two months after a previous visit — a restriction designed, it would seem, to curb a future David Coleman Headley, whose frequent trips to India (interspersed with trips to Pakistan) were aimed at “scoping out” or reconnoitring the venues for the 26/11 attacks.

Aside from the fact that Headley travelled on a business, not a tourist, visa, the new policy has made victims of a wide range of legitimate travellers, from tourists planning to base themselves in India while making brief forays to neighbouring countries, to frequent visitors with personal or cultural interests in India.

The initial application of the new visa regulation pointed to its obvious absurdity; a man who had been in India to attend to his gravely ailing mother was not allowed to re-enter to attend her funeral because two months had not elapsed since his previous visit; a couple who had left their bags at a Mumbai hotel to make an overnight visit to Sri Lanka were not allowed to come back even to collect their luggage; in another case, an NRI who had come to India to get engaged was not permitted to return for his own wedding!

Such stories, recounted by the ambassadors of the nations whose passports were held by these victims, made me cringe with embarrassment, but their wide repetition around the world certainly did India’s image a great deal of harm and therefore diminished its soft power.

If all this is bad enough, it is even worse when it comes to those who, like Headley, are of Pakistani descent or were born in that country. Visa regulations are already severely restrictive for Pakistani passport-holders, but a similar level of scrutiny is now applied to other passport holders with a Pakistani connection. Not only is their wait interminable, but clearance in each case is required from the home ministry in New Delhi, rather than at the discretion of the Indian embassy official dealing with the applicant (an obvious case of closing the stable door after the horse has bolted).

When the visa is granted, onerous restrictions are placed on the holders of Pakistani passports, including regular reporting to police stations and limitations on the places where they can travel. Violations are looked at severely. A markedly sympathetic Pakistani journalist was denied a second visa to India because, while officially confined to New Delhi on her first visa, she had ventured into the adjoining township of Gurgaon (which for all practical purposes is a Delhi suburb)! The objective of “winning friends and influencing people” is clearly not part of the ethos of India’s visa bureaucracy.

Things are not much better for those already here for longer stays. After 26/11, even people running charities for decades have been asked to pack up and leave when they apply to renew their visas. A British lady has been running an animal shelter in Kerala for the last five years. When her one-year visa expired, she went to the local FRRO office, was told that the office was closing and she should report to a different place four weeks later.

When she did that, she was told to return to the UK to renew her visa. What is the point of such procedural run-arounds for people who have established a record of doing good, making a contribution to our country for no recompense?

Though some halting progress has been made by extending visa-on-arrival facilities to a handful of foreign nationalities, even these carry restrictions on the Indian airports where a visa-on-arrival can be availed of, so that tourists from the right countries arriving in the wrong airport can be (and have been) summarily sent home. The alienation and antagonism this generates amongst people who, for the most part, start off being generously well-disposed to India, is considerable, and entirely unnecessary.

The same is true of the severe difficulties undergone by journalists and scholars wishing to write about India, whose visa issuance requires jumping several unreasonable hurdles (unreasonable, that is, for a democracy with a notoriously free press).

Journalists and even academics deemed to be insufficiently friendly to India are often denied visas or required to produce so much documentation, or fulfil so many conditions, that they give up the effort. Some who have expressed criticisms of India in the past, whether or not these criticisms are well-founded, are placed on a negative list and denied visas when they apply.

Such practices are disgraceful in principle in a democracy; worse, since they are intended to avoid negative views about India appearing abroad, they ensure precisely what they are trying to prevent.

India’s ability to promote and leverage its soft power in the world will receive a major boost only if and when the country’s visa policy is thoroughly re-examined and, ideally, revised. – Deccan Chronicle, Chennai, March 30, 2012

India Visa Sticker

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