Although the government of what passes for the world's largest ‘democracy’ has recently been vocal about Canadian visa officers denying visas to those who have served in the Indian uniformed forces, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh seems unaware that his government has been far more vigorous in denying visas to foreign nationals than any other democracy.
After the terror attack on Mumbai in 2008, the feisty Palaniappan Chidambaram was shifted from the Finance to Home Ministry, where he quickly lived up to his reputation as a ‘tough’ regulator. Because a single US national of Pakistani origin, David Coleman Headley (formerly Dawood) ‘cased’ prospective targets in Mumbai for Lashkar-e-Taiba, consular officials have made it painfully difficult for a North American or EU national of Pakistani origin to get an Indian visa.
To further mothball any welcome mat, the government has barred foreign nationals from coming back to India within two months of an earlier visit, a condition not enforced on multiple entry visa holders by any other country. At the same time, it has been ensured that any person deemed to be ‘controversial’ would be denied a visa, a fact that was recently made known to Henry Gates, a Harvard professor who had been arrested last year for breaking into his own home, and who has therefore been denied an Indian visa.
As he’s a favourite of Congress President Sonia Gandhi (who, Delhi rumour has it, even wants him to take over Manmohan Singh's current job), even the prime minister and less adventurous heads in the government such as Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Defense Minister A K Antony remain silent while Chidambaram goes ahead with dramatic and drastic measures after every terror strike. Last month, trains were stopped from running at night in much of eastern India, after Maoists derailed a passenger train in West Bengal, killing more than a hundred. Should there be similar attacks elsewhere, people may need to return to the bullock cart era, for the Home Ministry is reasonably certain of shutting down even more train services in one of his signature gestures.
The most recent victim of the government's obsession with prevention (even at the cost of paralysis) has been the annual South Asia Media Summit held at Goa's picturesque International Centre. This year, the subject was ‘Media and Terrorism’, and the organisers had invited a stellar cast from Pakistan, the United States, Britain and Sri Lanka, as well as from India and Nepal. Except for the latter, who don’t need visas to enter India, none of the other participants were given a visa by the respective Indian missions. Those deemed too dangerous to set foot on Indian territory include broadcaster Ayub Tarin, magazine editor Zahid Husain and terrorism expert Imtiaz Gul from Pakistan, who (it was privately claimed by officials) ‘may use the Goa platform for anti-India propaganda’.
Among others denied such an opportunity were James Hider and Stephen Farrel from Britain, and Michael Yon from the United States, none of whom has as yet been outed as a supporter of Mr Ayman Al-Zawahiri. However, clearly the Government of India knows more about such gentlemen than they do about themselves, for they join such security risks as journalist Iqbal Athas and editor Sinha Rantatunga from Sri Lanka, who too were denied visas to attend the conference.
Congress President Sonia Gandhi is a zealous follower of the Kafkaesque techniques used by her mother-in-law Indira Gandhi, and it shows. In every department of the government, since her hand-picked team came into office in 2004, regulations have been tweaked or altered in such a way as to increase the powers of officialdom at the expense of the citizen. In democracy India-style, the organizers of international conferences now need to get written permission from the Home Ministry, the Ministry of External Affairs and the ‘concerned ministry’ (for example, Agriculture if the subject relates to the field) before going ahead. Small wonder that most conferences are these days taking place outside the country, to the great joy of invitees from India, who are thereby given the pleasure of a foreign junket rather than delivering speeches in a country where, in its capital city, water has become a luxury and electric power vanishes for hours several times each day.