The Indian government recently cancelled a visa it had granted a Chinese dissident leader and Uighur activist Dolkun Isa earlier this year. Isa is the chairman of the Germany-based World Uighur Congress and was due to attend a conference next week in the northern Indian town of Dharamsala, which is being organized by the U.S.-based Initiatives for China.
Uighurs are an ethnic minority community from China’s western Xinjiang region and have a long history of discord with Beijing. They are Muslims and regard themselves as culturally and ethnically close to Central Asian nations. China has been battling Uighur separatism in Xinjiang since the 1990s and began labeling separatists there as ‘terrorists’ since 2001 to get global support, even as its stringent policies have been fueling militancy further. Chinese authorities consider Isa a terrorist and promptly criticized India when the visa was first issued.
India’s initial decision to grant the visa to Isa was largely viewed as a retaliatory measure against China after Beijing blocked India’s bid to get the United Nations to put Jaish-e-Mohammed (JeM) chief Masood Azhar on its terrorist list. China decided to put a technical ‘hold; on Masood Azhar’s terror designation, defending their stance by suggesting that more information was needed on the matter. Beijing has since suggested that India take up the issue bilaterally with Pakistan, New Delhi’s visa to Isa was an unusual and provocative decision—the first time New Delhi was taking on China over a similar issue. Even Rebiya Kadeer, chief of the World Uighur Congress, was not granted an Indian visa in 2009.
And so when India cancelled its visa for Isa, the Modi government seemed to have unwittingly signaled that China still calls the shots in this bilateral relationship. The government has been publicly embarrassed though officially it continues to maintain that Isa’s visa was revoked because such a visa is only issued for tourism purposes and Isa was coming to attend a conference. India has also suggested that Interpol’s red corner notice was one of the reasons for the cancellation even though Isa has been traveling to other countries such as the United States and Japan without too many problems.
Isa has expressed his disappointment at this turn of events and has laid the blame at China’s door, suggesting that “Chinese pressure” led to India’s decision as China “has regularly attempted to block or interfere with my human rights work at the UN in Geneva, in particular.” China did protest diplomatically to India and underlined that “Dolkun is a terrorist on red notice of the Interpol and Chinese police.”
The Modi government is receiving criticism from various quarters—not only from its opponents, but also from its supporters, who have long wanted New Delhi to follow a more muscular approach vis-à-vis China. Moreover, there are issues pertaining to India’s support for democratic forces in its vicinity. For a country that never fails to mention its democratic credentials in its quest for major power status, such pusillanimity on its core values does not inspire much confidence. It is true that China is a major bilateral relationship that New Delhi needs to nurture with due diligence. India needs to worry about its economic and trade ties with China as well as Beijing’s so far hands-off approach vis-à-vis separatists in Kashmir and Northeast. Yet there were ways in which the government could have salvaged the situation once the visa was issued rather than making an embarrassing U-turn, which has left most baffled by the sheer incompetence with which such a serious issue was handled.
This is a consequence of the way in which foreign affairs and national security are being dealt with under the Modi administration. Though foreign policy has largely been a success story of the two year old government, there are big personalities at play and the institutions are working in silos without any meaningful coordination. In this case, the Ministry of External Affairs was reportedly kept out of the loop as the Ministry of Home Affairs and the National Security Advisor’s office became the ultimate arbiters, resulting in a policy that lowered India’s stock at multiple levels. The incident once again underscores how vulnerable India remains to Chinese pressure even as it demonstrates New Delhi’s inability to execute tough foreign policy decisions. It also makes it clear that India does not have any real leverage vis-à-vis China at a time when relations between the two sides are becoming increasingly difficult.
It is likely that this episode will have some serious long-term consequences for India’s China policy, which under the Modi government was finally becoming more coherent and robust.