Posted by: John Elliott | December 29, 2009

Tharoor twitters on India’s clumsy visa curbs

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.


  1. As predicted Shashi Tharoor is out….his tweeting days are temporarily over…at least as a politician.

    I guess he was always getting into trouble and the IPL thing was the last straw for the government.

    It’s too bad since we had a guy who spoke to the modern India.

  2. […] Tharoor (left), an ambitious former top United Nations official who last year became an MP and a gaffe-prone external affairs minister. Tharoor helped a consortium based in his home state of Kerala to bid for one of two new IPL […]

  3. This is a nice blog, the info are great.
    Good job..keep doing.

  4. Excellent Post, Carry On ………

  5. I don’t understand what Selvaraja Somail means by ‘showing character’. In government, there is a principle of collective responsibility. I believe that even in the corporate world, this principle applies. According to this principle, once a decision is taken, a minister or an executive is expected to support it. At least, in public. In private, one has the right to dissent. If one feels very strongly about an issue and cannot support the same in public, then I guess the only alternative is to resign.

    Maybe, Mr Tharoor should consider this option very seriously. Especially given the fact that he has problems with the residence alloted to him, or travelling in ‘cattle class’.

  6. John, What is these stuff about being loyal to your government? I for one have no respect for politicians who just say “yes” to everything the government decrees. A healthy government is one that is able to answer challenges and it does not matter where it comes from. Although, Tharoor is frustrated his views are strong and he shows charcter.

  7. I’m not so sure that Indian consulates internationally are remotely as bad as the government bureaucracy in India. That may have changed recently.

    I think the person being pushed around in the UK would have probably faced far more difficulty’s trying to deal with the government in India itself.

    In my personal experience the Indian consulate in Hong Kong, at least was supremely efficient. To the point when dealing with the Indian government, it was faster and more effective to pay for a flight there and get whatever work we needed done, from PIO to OCI done there.

    I’m not really surprised in the slightest that the Indian government has used the excuse of terror to be more interfering and in general less efficient. ‘

    Governments globally have used the excuse of terror to curtail freedoms and increase their power, whilst electorates have stayed remarkably silent.

    The US has begun racial profiling at its ports of entry, and I am sure there is a totalitarian up there in heaven smiling.

    @ Nick. Twitter is a great tool for sharing thoughts with large numbers of people simultaneously, including strangers. Shouldn’t those thoughts however have some meaning? I think I have enough tedium of my own already to start incorporating the tedium of others.

    Twittering is fairly low brow. Mr. Tharoor is an author and an eloquent one. He can be thoughtful, why on earth would a man like that use a platform that seems to cater to 15 year old’s that can spell. It does seem rather careless to commit something to writing that is instantly syndicated and distributed globally, with no ability to recapture.

    He does not need an audience of followers on that platform, he has the ability to make his thoughts carefully known to decision makers and those in power.

    I’m not sure why he insists, for a man in his position, I see no real purpose that it serves.

    Let him speak, but with the dignity that he is more than capable of showing. There is no reason for him to share a pulpit with Paris Hilton.

  8. And if you want travel horror stories there’s Argentina, with the visa clerk at the Argentinian embassy in New Delhi (a room in the basement of the Ambassador’s villa) asking that applicants for tourist / business visas submit an affidavit witnessed by a notary, on stamp paper.

    India’s started to allow visa on arrival for five countries though (Japan – makes sense as India overtook China as their largest trading partner recently, and some other countries like Finland and Luxembourg .. though not the US / Germany / UK / Canada etc)

  9. @BK Syngal etc have commented on german visas.

    The german embassy seems to have the most procedure for a schengen visa application.

    The french are far better at it (and don’t have interesting rules like you have to have at least one german issued schengen issued in the past two years, or appear for a personal interview).

    I’ve had multiple schengens issued before (greek, french etc) with 1 year validity, not to mention a 10 year US B1 and various other visas in my current and 3 older passports so far ..

    With all that, what I got was a 15 day visa from the german consulate when I applied a year or two back, after they first rejected my application for a piece of paperwork that I’d submitted but they somehow misplaced. I had to resubmit after paying another visa fee – and interestingly enough, the resubmission was just after they’d hiked the visa fee by about 20 Euro. And that got me a 15 day visa.

    If Germany wasn’t such a cash rich country I’d have thought it a brilliant idea someone at the consulate had come up with to drum up more visa revenue.

  10. John, I was interested in a Tweeting MP and decided to follow him on Twitter. Unfortunately, Tharoor seems to be more an example of the limits of Twitter than anything else. Here are some of his most recents tweets:

    “Spoke to mother, 2sons &2sisters in 3 different cities to wish them a happy 2010.Tomrw going to Tvm where PM addresses Indian Science Congress”

    “Not a gr8 New Year’s Day. Took wife to airport, she goes back to her UN work inNY. Also battling winter virus: nasty cough, fever &chills”


    Finally, what’s the point? Is he a politician trying to influence or is he just an over-inflated ego who believes the entire world is interested his petty life stories?

  11. B K Snygal is right. If Mr. Tharoor loathes the Indian system so much, he should not have returned to India. Having returned to India and decided to enter politics and having accepted a berth in the central government, he needs to stand by the government. Else, let him resign his post as a minister and fight the system.

  12. I don’t understand all these comments about being loyal to your government. Who wants politicians that just say “yes” to everything the government decrees. Surely a healthy government is one that is able to answer challenges and questions, no matter where they come from. India isn’t a dictatorship, but a country of free speech where there can be discussions about what works and doesn’t work. Presumably Tharoor knows he is doing the wrong thing and, having had discussions on the subject internally, is frustrated by the final decision. It surely shows the strength of his views.

  13. Let’s look at the visa question from a wider and a longer term perspective.

    If we go back to the pre-Asian Games (’82) time, there were no visas for tourists. India only started requiring visas to prevent “terrorists” from disrupting the Games. I don’t think anyone would argue that this has worked: which is Tharoor’s point, isn’t it?

    Visa rules are normally reciprocal: when one country raises the cost, the other does the same. If one country requires a visa, then the other requires. There are exceptions: Singaporeans I believe do not need visas for the States, and almost no one needs a visa for Hong Kong and Thailand, for all practical purposes.

    Some countries, like the States and the UK, require visas to prevent unwanted immigration: and to keep out potential terrorists. As the recent bomb-on-the-plane incident in Detroit has shown, this approach has many loopholes. The last statistics that I have seen, showed that 54% of Indians GIVEN tourist visas to visit the States, don’t return (and I cannot now remember what percentage are refused visas).

    My first Indian visa, which I applied for in April of 1964 (a student visa to study at Mysore University) was only finally approved 3 months later: I had to get it stamped in my passport, in Teheran, on my way to India. What a nightmare that was.

    Since 1964, I have probably received an additional 40 visas: some in NY, some in Thailand, some in Katmandu, and finally was able to obtain a long-term visa, when the rules were changed to accommodate men who married Indian women (previously, women who married Indian men could get long term visas, but not the opposite).

    I was always very impressed with, was that the FRO near ITO continuously became more and more efficient: I actually looked forward to going to this office to see their latest improvements. The FRO behind the Hyatt Hotel on Ring Road was great: fast, efficient, and air-conditioned.

    There have been, for many many years, Westerners living in India, and using tourist visas to do so. In Goa, in Varanasi, and in the hills. the Home Ministry knows about this, and condones this both implicitly and explicitlly. the advertisement running now on CNN about Incredible India, is about this group: the so-called backpackers. If these are the tourists India wants to attract, then let’s get real. Let’s not “push” them to another country.

    When i first started doing business in India, it became clear very quickly, that the “rules” were thought up to prevent the 5% of dishonest businessmen, but did not really work against them. The rules hindered the honest businessmen, significantly. I have always felt this was a major factor in the slow growth of Indian industry.

    We seem about to be going to have the same situation vis a vis visa rules. We are asking for corruption, if we allow the consulates to have discretion.

    Come on, Tharoor is correct: Terrorists don’t apply for visas. Headley was, like the Nigerian recently on the Delta flight really impossible to prevent, without stopping traveling entirely: he slipped through the cracks and the next one will do so also, in the future. There are always cracks.

    It is about 27 years since the Asian Games (which i remember most as when I could watch color TV on my imported Sony). India started visas then, which has cost India millions of tourists over the years. Now, we are going to have rules which reduce further, genuine tourists and businessmen. Can we really afford this, and is this the best solution, to a serious worldwide problem? I think not.

  14. John, The truth lies in experiencing the agony by oneself. I think Mr Tharoor has not experienced that ie the humiliation met out to we souls at the hands of other embassies. My german (Schengan visa) is a case in point. does mr tharoor know the long list of documents required and the humiliating experience at the concerned embassy? at leqast three year tax return, two year bank statment and health cover. in the end those pseudo german punjabans decide to give you just 4 days visa.

    he does not understand the ground realities and has distanced himself from the real issues at hand. after 30 odd years abroad, you can not start preaching what ails within? this is crass opportunism having lost the top slot at UN and becoming a federal minister by slick PR. he must not air the differences in public. he has done that twice. rather than fighting for his country men at the obnoxious behaviour of other countries, he is barking up the wrong tree of criticising his own government. why can not there be reciprocity and quid pro quos, why? he should resign if he so loathes the system.

  15. John, I agree with Arvind. If Mr. Tharoor wishes to stay on as part of the Government, he must stick to the principles of collective responsibility.

  16. Twitter diplomacy is worse than megaphone diplomacy. If Shashi Tharoor carries on like this, however well-intentioned his views, he will be considered unreliable and disloyal to the government he’s supposed to be serving. A twitter fan base is not the same as a political base and I fear his twitter followers will only make things worse for him with their support.

  17. India needs some kind of tightening the rules in order to prevent the missuse of the visa rules. After the incident of Headly, it can not be business as usal. Better to ask to furnish documents with the visa applications so as to know and varify the authenticity of the visiting personsa and the purpose. For examples residence in India during their visit, letters from the contacts odf the visiting persons in India,if any.
    I live in Germany. An India inorder to visit germany has to submitt 28 documents!!!! If an India living in Germany sponser the visit with needed documents, he has to submitt the copies of the all pages of his passport. Even after that visa can be denied. The applicant has to undergo one hour of questioning in German Embassy in New Delhi. Even after that VISa is denied!!!!

    I think India is too lieanient in issuing the VISAS.

  18. Yes, India is very welcoming and an open country due to its Hindu heritage, but at the same time, others can take advantage and create problems. For instance, why should it be possible for unskilled and semi-skilled workers from China to work in India when so many Indian children die of hunger every day and Indian farmers are forced to commit suicide? When India itself has such a large population to fend, it is insane for foreigners to work there – on tourist visas! – whilst adding little intellectual value to the country. And why should terrorists be given the chance to exploit loopholes in the visa system so that they may target the very culture that welcomes them? Sure, there will be problems and there will be people that will be inconvenienced, but it is a price worth paying. Think of it as the inconvenience one faces these days at airport security before boarding a plane. Better safe than sorry, IMHO!

  19. John, I have no disagreement with Mr. Tharoor on his observations. What does make me wonder is that why he is still holding on to his position in the Government if he does not agree with the official view of his own ministry. He is a part of the establishment, and I believe that any dissenting views should be discussed internallly rather than tweeted around the world.

  20. Yes it is illogical. However tweeting complaints about something rather than raising it internally and doing something constructive about it is just plain dumb.

    Do that in a corporation and its going to get you fired. Do that in a bureaucracy like any government, or in the UN where Tharoor spent decades working his way up the hierarchy – in between playing “famous author”, you won’t like the consequences there either.

    For a corporation or a government, Twitter is an outreach mechanism – not a place where a person who is effectively an executive in an organization can go around bitching about something going on in the organization that he doesnt like. At least, not if that person wants to limit his career and end up considered a loudmouth instead of a thinker + doer.

    The sms speak in twitter makes it all sound
    rather more dumb than if he’d said it in a TV or newspaper interview .. if that’s at all possible.

    Sorry for the contrarian view John – I just came across your blog, and love all that I’ve read in it. You’re usually spot on, but this time, I disagree.

  21. One of the great advantages of Twitter and/or any social media, is the access the public get to thoughts and opinions that might not otherwise be heard. This obviously being a perfect example – especially with 540,000 followers. It was good his Twitter followers rallied to his support when he was ticked off by his boss yesterday, and I hope they do so even more if he faces any more official rebukes – that highlights another powerful positive element of social media – the public get heard.

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