The Unwelcome Mat

Shashi Tharoor is a Member of Parliament and the author, most recently, of Why I am a Hindu
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India can’t play out its soft power on the global stage if we continue with our restrictive visa policy
The roots of India’s pluralism and warm welcome to foreign cultures run deep. With our inimitable confluence of breathtaking vistas, delectable cuisine and cultural experiences to whet the heart and soul of the most intrepid and varied traveller, India is often truly Incredible in every sense of the word.

India benefits from the international appeal of its traditional practices (from Ayurveda to yoga, both accelerating in popularity across the globe) and the transformed image of the country created by its thriving diaspora. Our rich history, unique blend of cultural diversity, traditional wisdom and natural beauty are an undeniable draw, not only for non-Indians, but also for Indians overseas and many foreign citizens of Indian origin with roots in our country.

It is a source of immense pride that, over millennia, our civilisation has offered refuge, and more significantly religious and cultural freedom to Jews and Parsis, as well as different denominations of Christianity and Islam. Chinese scholars travelled to study and teach at our ancient universities. The Italian adventurer Marco Polo, the Moroccan-Turkish scribe Ibn Batuta, the Chinese Admiral Zheng He and the French priest Abbe Dubois all visited and wrote vivid accounts of the India they saw—which we might never had enjoyed had the India of their times adopted the kind of visa policies we have today.

Ironically, 21st century India is one of the world’s largest economies, a proud player on the global stage with a long record of responsible conduct on international matters. The country has been attracting tremendous interest from foreign investors, with India home to the target consumer not only of multinational corporations, but also foreign governments and sovereign funds through bilateral cooperation in energy, infrastructure and even education. The world is well and truly watching India, and is eager to engage constructively with us. However, our visa system— in both concept and practice, from regulation to application—ensures we continue keep the world at an arm’s length. If soft power is about making your country attractive to others, the Indian bureaucracy seems determined to do everything in its power to achieve the opposite effect in the way it treats foreigners wishing to visit or reside in India.

Visa processes, viewed as time-consuming, unnecessarily demanding and expensive, have become far more cumbersome as a result of the Government’s reaction to 26/11. For instance, a rule imposed in 2009 restricted travellers on tourist visas to return to India for a period of at least two months after a previous visit. The rationale for this rule was to prevent a future David Coleman Headley, whose frequent trips to India—interspersed with trips to Pakistan—laid the groundwork for the heinous attack in Mumbai. As usual, the reaction was misplaced and targeted the wrong people. While Headley travelled on a business visa, and not a tourist visa, the terrorists of 26/11 applied for no visas at all. Restricting visas is not an answer to terrorism.

The initial application of the rule also made victims of a wide range of legitimate travellers. Some examples include tourists who wished to make India their base for journeys across the Subcontinent; a man who had visited India to visit his ailing mother was not allowed to re-enter the country to attend her funeral because two months had not elapsed since his previous visit; a couple who left their luggage in Mumbai while making an overnight visit to Sri Lanka were not allowed to come back to reclaim their belongings; and a Non-resident Indian who had come to India to get engaged was not permitted to return for his own wedding!

These might have been extreme cases, but our general policy approach is no better. We make it difficult, time consuming and procedurally irritating to travel to India. We don’t allow foreigners to work easily in our country unless they earn a much higher salary than most Indians, and we make it impossible for their spouses to get work permits. When they get here, we put them through the nightmarish experience of dealing with the Foreigners’ Registration Office (FRRO), which ranks easily among our least-known and most-resented government institutions.

A recent example that I have been made aware of is that of a young American development worker with expertise in civil engineering and road reconstruction. Having entered India with the objective of working on development projects, it took her numerous visits and wasted hours to register her arrival. On each occasion she was turned back with instructions to add new supporting documents or replace existing ones. Our system needlessly imposed a long and harrowing process that could have been avoided entirely by the official looking at all her documents in one go and advising necessary changes. Over three successive days spent at the office, she drew solace from the wry observation that she wasn’t the only repeat customer. The FRRO has acquired a reputation among foreigners in India as a cross between Purgatory and Hades—hardly an appropriate image for a nation that ought to treat others as we would wish our own diaspora to be treated.

The irony becomes stark when you ask yourself what it means to be a young person in urban India today. It can mean waking up to an alarm clock made in China, downing a cup of tea from leaves first planted by the British, donning jeans designed in America and taking a Japanese scooter or Korean car to get to an Indian college, where textbooks might be printed with German-invented technology on paper first pulped in Sweden. The young Indian student might call his friends on a Finnish mobile phone to invite them to an Italian pizza while passionately following the fortunes of a favourite English football club! And yet we remain suspicious of foreigners and not gracious in extending a safe welcome to them.

With a frankly tiresome, inconvenient and unimaginatively-applied system of rules, India’s visa bureaucracy sends out the message that ‘winning friends and influencing people’ is not a part of its ethos. As a result, the potential of sectors that are impacted by our visa policy remains unfulfilled. One such example is the tourism sector, which has a lot of ground to cover. This is only reaffirmed by the fact that in 2012, around 6.6 million foreign tourists visited India, whereas the top tourist destination in the world, France, with a population and size a fraction of ours, attracted around 83 million.

Though some halting progress was made in the past by extending visa-on-arrival facilities to a handful of foreign nationalities, even these were available only at a few airports, so tourists had to arrive at the right airport to avoid being turned back! In recognition of this gap, the United Progressive Alliance Government at the Centre has potentially assured a massive boost to the country’s tourism sector by extending its ‘visa on arrival’ scheme to visitors from 180 countries at a larger list of airports—a sign that our attitudes might be changing. How it works in practice, however, remains to be seen.

The importance of travel that deepens meaningful cultural exchange, appreciation of other traditions and humanism in general should not be underestimated. From time immemorial, the accounts of travellers and scholars have been instrumental in bringing civilisations closer together. One might argue that the advent of the internet age with digital technology and social media has accelerated the global exchange of ideas (or even the ‘clash of civilisations’!). However, the virtual cannot replace the experience of living and breathing the vitality of a distant land. In this light, academic exchanges that grant scholars and intellectuals access to our country are also imperative.

Despite India’s democratic traditions of a free press, foreign scholars and journalists wishing to write about India have to face several unreasonable hurdles to secure a visa. Getting into the country becomes an even bigger challenge for those academics and reporters who are deemed to be insufficiently friendly to India. A record of having expressed criticism of the country, irrespective of the merits of the argument, can result in being placed on a negative list and the denial of a visa. This is deeply disappointing in a democracy. Worse, it is counter-productive: the intention to keep negative views on India from appearing abroad results in precisely that.

A manifestation of this inability to accept a different point of view and defend freedom of expression is also visible in society at large. The recent withdrawal of a book by an American Indologist under relentless pressure by self- appointed guardians of the Hindu faith, many of whom haven’t even read the book, is one such example. Whether or not the criticisms of her work of scholarship are justified is not the point; it is the denial of the right to have an opinion that is detrimental to India’s image. While India, always fiercely independent, has no obligation to pay obeisance to academics of any country, this refusal to engage intellectually with an argument and reluctance to allow the physical entry of those with possibly inconvenient views, is detrimental to the goodwill the country engenders as a democracy. To allow any self-appointed arbiters of Indian culture to impose their hypocrisy and double standards on the rest of us is to permit them to define Indianness down until it ceases to be Indian.

To wield soft power, India must defend, assert and promote its culture of openness against the forces of intolerance inside and outside the country. The alienation and antagonism this generates among people, who, for the most part, start off being generously well disposed to India, is considerable and entirely unnecessary.

It is also important to acknowledge this from the perspective of the economy. In recent years, India has suffered, like most developing countries, from declining foreign investment, poor export performance and a depreciating currency. The Government’s decision to permit foreign direct investment in civil aviation and multi- brand retail, pursued even at the cost of losing a recalcitrant coalition ally, are examples of signals that encourage useful business engagement. Yet, business is done with people, and if we are unwelcoming before they step onto our shores, it will only be to our detriment.

At the level of the individual, idealistic young teachers as well as writers or even business executives looking for early work experience in a prominent emerging market (which they can get in China) are being denied work permits here because their salaries aren’t high enough to meet the Home Ministry’s arbitrary standards. If they are willing to live on Indian salaries to get to know our country and make a contribution here, why on earth do we deny them?

The impact of our visa policies is not limited to foreigners entering India on business or travel. The reciprocal nature of visa arrangements means the more restrictive we become, the tougher it will be for Indians to travel or work freely abroad. When, on an official visit to Colombia, I was urged by Indian companies to ask for more generous work permits to Indian business executives in that country, it was pointed out to me that Colombia’s seemingly unreasonable restrictions on such visas for Indians were still about ten times more generous than the rules India applied for Colombian citizens in identical circumstances.

This critique may seem odd coming from a government minister, but it is not aimed at any specific government. The policies and attitudes I have criticised here have been followed by every government since Independence, of all political hues; they are a reflection of the system and not of specific political choices by any party. Our bureaucracy, as custodians of our national ‘unwelcome mat’, has far more to answer than the ministry of the day. It will take nothing less than a national consensus within our society to make the changes I am advocating here.

India’s ability to promote and leverage its soft power in the world will get a boost only if and when the country’s visa policies are thoroughly re-examined and revised. We must live up to the cultural heritage that this magazine’s very title embodies. Only then can Incredible India become Credible India in the eyes of the world.