There is doubt over the level of scrutiny being exercised by Indian authorities over visa applications for entry into India.
Cases have emerged of preaching or evangelical activities being pursued by foreigners who are in India on a tourist visa.
India needs to start getting tougher, perhaps in a way similar to the US, which rejects applications if they find them questionable.
A couple of years ago, a journalist from a leading financial daily in Hyderabad applied for a United States (US) non-immigrant visa. Not familiar with the US visa norms, the journalist, on a trip sponsored by a US corporate firm, applied for a B1/B2 visitor visa.
The US consular staff who interviewed the journalist for the visa suggested that he apply for an I visa than a B1/B2 Visa since he would be doing professional work in the US. The journalist complied and got a visa to the US.
A Tamil Nadu Assembly member (MLA) applied for a US visa to attend his brother-in-law’s graduation. The US consular staff asked him what he would be doing there. The legislator said he was an “MLA”, which obviously the US consular staff didn’t understand and, hence, his visa application was rejected.
A leading Muslim League leader in Kerala, who wanted to go to the US for medical treatment, got his visa application rejected as the US consular staff in India were not convinced about his visit. It took quite an effort from the local employees of the US State Department in India to convince authorities to let the leader travel to the US for medical treatment.
These three anecdotes tell us the sort of due diligence the US authorities carry out before handing out visa permits to foreigners. In fact, a US consular staff who sits in judgement over a visa application is treated like a magistrate whose decision is never questioned.
There are other anecdotes, too, of how ruthless consular staff have to be while handling visa applications. An Indian woman who went to the US with her husband soon after marriage returned in a couple of months after getting pregnant. After the child’s birth, she approached the US government again for a visa.
The woman was asked to produce a certificate from the gynaecologist in the US who examined her soon after she got pregnant.
Another married woman, who wanted to visit her relatives in the US, was asked what was the guarantee that she would not find another partner in the US and stay back?
Compare these scenarios with what has happened in India over the last 45 days.
First, a US citizen, John Allen Chau, entered India with a visitor visa. He then undertook evangelist work, attempting to convert people of North Sentinel Island. In the bargain, he got killed.
Second, two French journalists, Arthur Ronald Rene and Jules Daimen, came to India and entered a prohibited area in Kanyakumari before beginning to take a video of the area. When confronted by authorities, they took to their heels and escaped to France.
Now comes the curious case of Mark Scialla, a freelance journalist and video producer who entered the country on 4 December on a visitor visa. Scialla landed up at Thoothukudi on 27 December and began interviewing people on the Sterlite issue.
Tamil Nadu police woke up a trifle late on 30 December and questioned him after he interviewed the people on 28 and 29 December. They are now looking into whether he has violated visa rules. Diplomatic sources say Scialla has violated the visa rules by pursuing professional work when he had, in fact, come on a visitor visa.
The US journalist writes and presents for The Guardian, Al Jazeera, and PBS Newshour. According to sources, Scialla has come to India on the invitation of human rights organisations besides a couple of anti-Sterlite activities like Fathima in Thoothukudi. Before coming to India, the US journalist had visited Kenya, where the United Kingdom-based Vedanta, which owns Sterlite, has huge business.
This raises suspicions on the objective of Scialla’s visit to India.
The timing of the journalist’s visit is also suspect. The visit comes close on the heels of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) quashing the Tamil Nadu government order to close the Sterlite Copper plant.
Anti-Sterlite activists have resumed their activities to keep Sterlite shut after the NGT ruling and Scialla’s visit in conjunction with this is questionable. We could soon hear voices of press freedom being muzzled, but given the questionable way in which the US journalist has behaved, it is better to reject such claims.
Scialla should have come on a J visa and not on a visitor visa. The Centre also needs to find out the source of funding for these journalists, as also the organisations that have brought these people here.
On the other hand, these three issues question the way Indian authorities are handling visa applicants. Are Indian embassies and consulates abroad performing the required due diligence while giving visa to foreigners?
Probably, not much questioning of the visa applicants is happening compared to, say, like the US authorities.
It is another issue that most of the US authorities think every Indian they come across is interested in a visa to their country. Indian authorities need not think that way, but they need to cover a lot of ground, particularly in the backdrop of these three violations.
One of the repeated violations that is being witnessed with regard to the Indian visa is that quite a few preachers and evangelists come to the country on a visitor visa, which actually prohibits such activities.
Such violators are deported and probably not handed another visa again. But India should think of other ways to discourage such violation of visas. A person wanting to avail of an Indian visa needs to be questioned thoroughly.
The US authorities have now begun to ask visa applicants for their social media IDs. India should also consider asking applicants for such IDs and the authorities have to scrutinise the background of the applicants.
The Narendra Modi government will also have to scale up the issue and take it up with respective governments and organisations, too. It’s also time for the government to tell the organisations to be fair in whatever they do rather than encourage such clandestine attempts.