18 April 2004

India wants US not to humiliate VIP fingers

18 April 2004
The Times of India

India wants US not to humiliate VIP fingers


NEW DELHI: The Vajpayee government is unhappy with the new US policy of fingerprinting foreign visitors, including Indians on arrival. But unlike Brazil and China - which have begun retaliating against US visitors, India is only seeking to exempt its VIP and VVIP travellers from the humiliating requirement.

Last week, senior officials from the external affairs ministry met diplomats in the US embassy here to seek "clarifications" about a key grey area in the fingerprinting rule: what happens to holders of diplomatic passports?

As matters stand, the only exception permissible under the new US statute is for diplomatic passport holders travelling on official work.

It means that if external affairs minister Yashwant Sinha were to fly in to New York on personal business - say, to visit relatives - he would have to leave behind at JFK airport a freshly minted set of fingerprints.

The same would be true of the Chief Justice of India, or indeed any one of the huge tribe of VIPs and VVIPs that populate this land of ours.

"We have sought some clarifications on this issue," a senior Indian official told Times News Network. "Our embassy in Washington has also raised some questions. Let us see what they say."

Earlier this month, the Chinese government became the second country, after Brazil, to announce it would take retaliatory measures against the US for fingerprinting most Chinese visitors to that country.

According to Xinhua news agency, the measures include granting ordinary visas and levying a visa fee for US diplomatic passport holders travelling for personal purposes.

In-person visa interviews may henceforth be required and US citizens can no longer apply for visas on arrival in China. On its part, Brazil has been fingerprinting US visitors since January.

As things stand, however, MEA officials insist India is not going to take any retaliatory action against the US.

Says an official: "Our view is that Indians are not being singled out for fingerprinting, so there is no need for us to react. It is a general US rule. In fact, from October, even visitors from countries like Britain and Japan, who don't require visas to enter the US, will also be fingerprinted on arrival there."

Indian tour operators disagree with the government's approach. "India should not be taken for granted", says one Delhi-based travel agent. "Otherwise tomorrow, Americans will start collecting our fingerprints here itself."

In Indonesia, the government has resorted to retaliation of a different kind to fight against what it feels is Western "finger-pointing" over the alleged dangers of travelling to South-East Asia.

Last week, the Indonesian authorities issued a travel advisory to their citizens urging them to cancel non-essential travel to the UK, citing the heightened threat of a terror attack in London following the Madrid blasts.

Hailing the stand of both Jakarta and Beijing, an Asian travel industry newsletter, Travel Impact Newswire, says that while the Chinese and Indonesian actions will be statistically meaningless in terms of actual visitor movements, "they are, however, symbolically significant... The Chinese are signalling that they may not yet wish to fingerprint and photograph US visitors, partly because they may not have the equipment in place to do so, but they certainly can and will take other 'countermeasures'. In turn, the Indonesians are indicating that if UK advisories against Indonesia are designed to 'protect UK citizens', the Indonesian government has an equal right to protect its citizens by warning them of potential dangers of visiting UK."

The newsletter argues that "if the governments of India and other increasingly powerful developing countries take similar counter-measures, the tables will start turning big time."

However, given the Indian government's primary aim of insulating only its VIPs, a defiant stand is unlikely.

Of course, a big obstacle in securing the exemption from fingerprinting for Indian VIPs is their sheer number.

"There are literally thousands of diplomatic passport holders out there," says an official. "Ex-MPs, former officials, MLAs. Who all will the US exempt?"

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