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November 4, 2009

Let them come (even sans visa)

Earlier this summer, a woman in Latin America did not get the visa in time to make her trip to India to attend a conference. In itself, this would have been a minor incident, inconveniencing her, the conference organisers, and travel agents. Many people have to rearrange travel plans when they are unable to get their papers in order in time for visa officers to make their decisions. While individuals have the right to leave their country—and to return to their country— no country is under an obligation to accept a foreigner (with the exception being those fleeing conflict or have a well-founded fear of being persecuted, under international refugee law).

But this individual is an academic, and she was scheduled to present a paper about land and conflict dynamics in Latin America, and its impact on business operations. She has a PhD from a reputed university, and she was planning to attend a closed-door, privately-organised round-table on global issues concerning human rights, conflict, and development, and the role of business. She has worked at think tanks in the Americas, and is a frequent fixture at such seminars—this would have been her first trip to India.

She did not make her trip because Indian embassy’s visa officers in her capital city, despite being reassured that she was going to speak about her experiences in her country, baulked. Fearing that someone further up the food chain in the Ministry of External Affairs might object later, they kept delaying the process until it was impossible for her to make the trip. She was not the only one who had to cancel; a British delegate had to drop plans, too. Meanwhile, two delegates traveling from the United States faced no problem.

This is not a plea for joined up thinking in India’s ministry of external affairs, though that would be a good start. This is about the sheer lack of imagination of the babus, who tremble when they read words like conflict and human rights in the application of a foreigner wishing to visit India. Hers is hardly the only instance. There are several foreign  journalists who have had to go through incredible hoops to assure visa officers that their interest in India is mainly benign. This means some journalists are forced to lie when they apply for a visa; or, reporters writing timid, safe stories about “incredible” India find it easier to get visas quickly. Why journalists? Academics who specialise in India too have had similar experiences, where papers they might write in obscure journals are perceived as part of an anti-India agenda on the part of the academic community. Development workers and human rights activists who wish to visit India even on a holiday have to provide guarantees in writing that they will not conduct any of their regular business while in India.

One human rights organisation had sent two of its representatives to India in early 2002, for a human rights education seminar. That week, a train burned in Godhra, killing 58 Hindus, and retaliatory riots followed, killing at least 900 people, 600 of them being Muslims. These activists faced the stark moral dilemma—whether to go to Gujarat and gather testimonies, or continue their participation in the seminar, as if nothing had happened.

Those critical of foreign busybodies—human rights activists, journalists, or academics—coming to India say that they aren’t needed, because India has enough internal critics who have the freedom to say what they want, which is right, up to a point. But why impose restrictions at all? What does India have to hide?

Ask documentary film-makers and they will tell stories of having to submit scripts for approval, with officials lacking aesthetic sense or an awareness of the art form sitting on judgement whether a particular film can be made in India. Hypersensitive interest groups have already forced some filmmakers to cancel plans of filming in India. Deepa Mehta’s Water is a recent example, but think of the criticism heaped upon Richard Attenborough when he was making Gandhi. One noted Gandhian said at that time: “We are not prepared to give our Gandhi to anyone.”

This makes India’s image-management look like Burma, China, and Indonesia under Suharto. It is grossly incompatible with a modern democracy on the cusp of great power status. Worse, it fails: impose restrictions on foreigners, and they will think India has something to hide, convincing the visitor to look for the stories that read like a pale imitation of Vandana Shiva, Arundhati Roy or P Sainath.

Whatever happened to India’s soft power?

Joseph Nye gave wide currency to this notion, where he suggested that the United States need not throw its weight around the international stage; it could have its way through being attractive and positive. Singapore’s founding father Lee Kuan Yew alluded to it, in comparing the United States with China, saying while both countries were comparable in many ways, the United States won the soft-power sweepstakes hands down, because of its vibrant popular culture, its brand names, and the sheer desirability of some of the ideas and ideals of America. China lacked those. Jackie Chan, try as he might, simply could not outrun Brad Pitt.

Before he became the minister of state for external affairs, Shashi Tharoor eloquently argued for India to use its soft power better. There is already a reservoir of goodwill for India in the West, for example: think of the popularity of yoga, the growing interest in Bollywood, the easy access to Indian spices and Indian foods abroad, the wide acclaim that greets many Indian writers, filmmakers, artists, and musicians—all of these, coupled with the successful stagingof elections periodically, creates the impression that India is like any modern, western-style democracy.

That is, until the foreigner tries to visit India, to understand what makes that democracy work, where it may be getting corrupted, and what its failings are. This is a battle India can win easily against its inevitable rival in Asia and beyond, China: by being more open, India may reveal its weaknesses; but at least those weaknesses will be visible. By closing down, India may think it has hidden its weaknesses, but it will only confirm the worst fears other may have about India. How can a reporter, for example, figure out the strides dalits may have made in India, if he is not allowed to visit India to make a documentary on caste? How would an academic appreciate India’s freedom of expression, if she is to go by the received wisdom from others? And yet, if either of them made an application for a visa, the process will be cumbersome; the application will get delayed.

This is India scoring a spectacular self goal. And to what end? Foreign correspondents can recall many stories where visa officers of authoritarian regimes delay issuing visas in the futile hope of shaping coverage that they fear will show their country in a poor light. During the last days of the Suharto era in Indonesia, visa officers routinely took between one and two months issuing visas to correspondents — a rule that they waived if they were bribed, or if the reporters lied and sought tourist visas and then did their official business. (It’s not that simple: if those reporters got caught, they could have ended up spending time in an Indonesian jail — which is not a prospect for the faint-hearted.) It is only after the International Monetary Fund effectively took over the management of the Indonesian economy in 1997, that the visa officers began issuing visas promptly.

India’s practices—of seeking approvals from New Delhi, of requiring that the reporter or academic get the nature of her inquiry vetted first—make it look more like Indonesia under Suharto, and less like what it is—a democracy. India is making life unnecessarily difficult for academics, writers, and activists, assuming that each of them is an agent provocateur intent on destabilising India. Instead, India should let its soft power prevail, and make their lives easy. Let them come. Let them come even without a visa. There’s something called atithi devo bhava that the tourism department likes to talk about. Let them find things for themselves: the innate goodness of the Indian people, and the genuine openness of the society, which marks India as special in the developing world, will win most of them over.

It is only when India’s sleuths stop spying on reporters and academics that they will have the time and resources to protect India’s borders: where young men, barely out of their teens, can turn up, in hijacked fishing trawlers, and hold the nation in a fearful siege for three days. Such extremists enter India at will; the seashore remains vulnerable, but the babus in embassies abroad are busy stopping Oxbridge dons or Ivy League experts who want to come to India and talk about how Latin American countries deal with paramilitary forces and left-wing guerrillas fighting over oilfields, and its impact on human rights of indigenous people.

Indeed, incredible India.


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