Some politicians have an uncanny knack of saying the right thing publicly at the wrong time. Shashi Tharoor, a former top UN official who is now India’s junior foreign minister – and a famous Tweeter (as I wrote in September) – is a leading example. He only became an MP earlier this year and his new political career will probably suffer if he doesn’t curb his tweeting.
For now however, let’s praise him for pointing out how illogical the Indian government has been by clumsily toughening its tourist and business visa rules just because a suspected terrorist visited India several times over several years months on such visas.
“R we going 2allow terrorists 2make us less welcoming?” Tharoor (left) asked, in tweet-speak on his Twitter page which has over 540,000 followers (readers).
“Imprt to recognize that security must not become an excuse 2change our cntry 4d worse…… Making it more difficult 2 visit India, return here frequently or stay long hurts large nbrs of innocents, costs us millions of$ & alienates……
“Dilemma of our age: tough visa restrictions in hope of btr security or openness &liberality to encourage tourism& goodwill? I prefer latter.”
According to reports, Tharoor was reflecting reservations in India’s External Affairs Ministry about the Home Ministry’s visa restrictions which, after weeks of muddle, seem to mean that foreigners holding long-term multiple entry visas must leave the country for at least two months every three months, and stay away for the same period if they leave voluntarily earlier.
The government has added that exceptions could be made for travellers who submit itinerary details to the visa authorities, but that would undoubtedly lead to endless hassles with India’s often obstructionist foreigners’ registration offices (FRROs) which are already overcrowded, inefficient and often unfriendly.
The restrictions have been suddenly introduced because a suspected terrorist, David Headley (or Daood Sayed Gilani), who has been arrested in America, travelled frequently to India on a business visa in the run-up to terror attacks in Mumbai 13 months ago. He allegedly also ran a small business in Mumbai. Other visa-busting cases include low-wage Chinese workers who have been employed on tourist visas. This all led to a knee-jerk reaction by the Home Ministry which introduced the new rules.
But the misuse of these visas by long-term residents has been widely known for years. When I appeared on an Indian tv news channel (NDTV’s 24/7) last week, K. Padmanabhiah, who was the home secretary in the 1990s, admitted he had known about long-stayers on tourist visas who went to the states of Nagaland and Kashmir “to write books”. I suggested that since this proved the Home Ministry had known about the visas being misused for many years, there was no excuse for a knee-jerk reaction now.
Both the UK and US governments have complained, mainly about a lack of policy clarity and consistency. The US Embassy’s website talks about “inconsistent implementation of the new rule.”
These rules risk worsening India’s long-established reputation as an uncomfortable and unfriendly tourist destination where officials are more interested in hassling travellers and foreign residents than in smoothing out their problems.
The rules are also illogical. How will having to leave the country curb would-be terrorists, who can easily travel to a nearby country and operate from there or, more probably, bribe an Indian official to be allowed to return immediately? And why must a visitor leave for two months? Why not just apply for an extension?
As G. Parthasarathy, a retired senior ambassador, remarked on television yesterday, terrorists who attacked Mumbai last year did not come on visas, nor did others who staged earlier attacks and an aircraft hijacking.
In any case, what is point in introducing such restrictions in a country where the bureaucracy is so easily buyable – as Parthasarathy also said, corrupt officials even sell passports and “every policeman is on the take”.
Problems of harassment begin when would-be visitors try to obtain visas abroad. In the past few months I have heard several stories of problems. One visitor says that India’s Paris and London visa offices do not require the same supporting documents, while others complain of endless delays.
A story from the UK tells of sheer misery of a young visitor who was inefficiently pushed around for nearly three weeks by India’s visa officials in London. An internet application system did not work, an application was lost, officials gave conflicting messages, the applicant was told to contact the wrong office, a pre-paid courier service for returning the passport was not used, and the passport was almost returned to the wrong address.
Virtually every country of course treats visitors appallingly. I hear many complaints for example about how unhelpful and arrogant the UK’s outsourcing company in Delhi can be, and the US seems to do its best to deter visitors. In a Gulf countrya few weeks ago, an immigration official rudely tossed my passport back at me when I suggested that a $28 fee was high for a 36-hour stopover.
But that is no reason for a country like India, whose culture is to be open and welcoming, and which needs to develop its tourism and international business links, to behave as the home ministry is now doing.
Tharoor was right in what he said, though he was of course inadvisedly breaking ranks. As his boss said yesterday, he should air his comments within the government, not on Twitter. But let’s hope he survives so that he can continue tweetingly to mock irrational government.