23 February 2010

The conference visa debate continues...

... in which the Ministry of Home Affairs says we're not policing thought and I reply that that is precisely what the restrictions on foreign scholars are intended to do...

23 February 2010
The Hindu

Ministry guidelines on conference and tourist visas

Ashim Khurana, Joint Secretary (Foreigners), Ministry of Home Affairs, writes:

I invite attention to the article ‘Policing thought, not controlling terror' (Feb. 22, 2010). I am afraid that the report is based on considerable misunderstanding and does not reflect the position correctly.

Conference Visa

The guidelines on Conference Visas have been in place for quite some time. These guidelines were revisited through a process of Inter-Ministerial consultations with the stakeholder Ministries/Departments concerned and revised instructions were issued in July, 2009.

As per the revised guidelines, prior security clearance from MHA is required

• in respect of participants from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, Iran, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Iraq, Sudan, foreigners of Pakistani origin and Stateless persons;

• if the participation involves visit to restricted or protected areas in India or areas affected by terrorism, militancy and extremism, etc. viz. Jammu & Kashmir and North-Eastern States;

• if the conference involves politically and socially sensitive subjects.

The participants from other countries can obtain Conference Visas from the Indian Mission concerned on production of

(i) invitation letter from the organiser,

(ii) event clearance from the Ministry of Home Affairs,

(iii) administrative approval of the nodal Ministry,

(iv) political clearance from the Ministry of External Affairs and

(v) clearance from the State Government/UT concerned.

The above guidelines supersede all the previous instructions on the subject.

The fresh guidelines were put in place to streamline the procedure for grant of Conference Visas to bona fide participants. In the present scenario, security imperatives cannot be ignored. As security vetting is a comprehensive process to be performed within a prescribed time line, a period of six weeks has been prescribed to the organisers to submit the details of the proposals so as to ensure that the clearance from MHA is granted well in time for the event and for the participants so that they are not put to any undue hardship in making their travel plans to attend the conference.

The guidelines are intended to facilitate conferences, not to control free speech or thought.

Tourist Visa

The recent guidelines on Tourist Visas stipulating a gap of at least two months between two visits to the country on a Tourist Visa have been introduced with a view to curbing the abuse/misuse of Tourist Visa. This stipulation of two months gap does not apply to foreign nationals coming on any other type of visa. This also does not apply to people of Indian origin holding PIO and OCI Cards. In case a foreign national holding a Tourist Visa has to come to the country within the period of two months of his/her last departure due to any exigent situation, he/she may have to obtain special permission from the Mission/Post concerned after duly satisfying the Mission/Post about the exigency.

A provision has also been made for genuine tourists who have to re-enter India largely on account of neighbourhood tourism. In such cases, the Indian Missions/Posts abroad have been authorised to permit two or three entries, subject to submission of a detailed itinerary and supporting documentation (ticket bookings).

Furthermore, instructions have already been issued on 24.12.2009 authorising the Immigration authorities in all the Immigration Check Posts in the country to allow such foreign nationals on Tourist Visas arriving in India without the specific authorisation from the Indian Missions/Posts to make two or three entries into the country (need based), subject to production of an itinerary and supporting documentation (ticket bookings).

It has also been decided that in emergent cases involving re-entry of persons of Indian origin on Tourist Visa within sixty days, of their earlier departure from India, FRROs may exercise their discretion in allowing such passengers to enter into the country after being convinced of the genuineness of their visit.

Siddharth Varadarajan replies:

Mr. Ashim Khurana is right to say security imperatives cannot be ignored in the present scenario. But why does the visit of a scholar from Europe or America trigger “security imperatives” only when she or he comes for a conference on “politically and socially sensitive subjects” and not when she or he visits India as a tourist? Obviously because the government believes a security threat is posed not by the scholar as an individual but by the views she or he has on "sensitive" subjects, a term so elastic it could cover virtually any topic. As for scholars from the eight blacklisted countries, India issues the maximum tourist visas to Bangladeshis and it is not difficult for a Bangladeshi academic to visit India for tourism. What is it about a “conference” that prompts the MHA to insist on security clearance for the scholar? Clearly, the ministry believes the exchange of ideas with foreign scholars has “security” implications.That is why I said what is being policed here is thought.

As for the two-month cooling off period for foreign visitors — a decision triggered by David Headley's frequent visits to India on a business visa — Mr. Khurana himself admits the stipulation of a two months gap does not apply to foreign nationals coming on any type of visa other than a tourist visa.

Despite all the safeguards and exemptions he has listed, many bona fide tourists and persons of Indian origin not holding PIO/OCI cards have been denied entry because of the new rule. The rule has also deterred potential visitors. Given the expense involved, tourists and Indian-origin visitors want an assurance that they would be allowed in and are unlikely to have confidence in the display of “discretion” by immigration officials.

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