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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

US, UK protest as India gets tough on visas

TNN 23 December 2009,

NEW DELHI: The tightening of visa norms following the unearthing of terror missions of Lashkar jihadi David Coleman Headley has raised a storm of protests from countries such as UK and US.

The new rules, to be notified next week, will apply to anyone needing a visa to come to India, even those of Indian origin. Essentially, they will stop the current system where an Indian tourist visa doubled up as a business visa.

The new rules say that if you are in India on a tourist visa and have stayed for over 90 days, you need to take a two-month "time-out" before returning.

This will hit hard thousands of foreign nationals living in India on long-term tourist visas. They prefer tourist visas to avoid the cumbersome process involved in securing a visa that can give them the right to residency.

There is another category which will be affected by the change in visa regime -- foreigners who arrive in India on tourist visas and use the country as the base for travel to nearby nations.

The change, prompted by the discovery of how Headley moved in and out of the country while plotting terror strikes against India, has caught many foreign tourists unawares, provoking howls of protest. The MEA too has asked the home ministry to reconsider these provisions, which are seen as drastic by many.

Headley was in India on a multiple-entry long-term visa when he charted out terror targets for Laskhar-e-Toiba. The videos prepared by him during his reccee of Mumbai were used by Lashkar terrorists in the 26/11 attack.

The protests have already led the home ministry to introduce a "rider" to make things easier, but this has not abated calls for a review of the decision.

British business secretary Lord Peter Mandelson, who is in India, met home minister P Chidambaram to request that the government rethink the visa policy. He said it would hurt British tourists who make India a base while travelling in the region.

The British High Commission confirmed to TOI that a letter had been sent to the Indian government over the last two days, asking for a review of the proposed visa guidelines.

Officials later indicated they would be "flexible" if, at the time of applying for a visa, the applicant tells the Indian visa officer that he will also be travelling to other countries in the region, using India as a hub. The visa will reflect the itinerary of the tourist, affording him more flexibility.

But it will entail, just like in any other country with multiple-entry visa norms, considerable paperwork. Here too, the discretion will lie with the visa officer concerned, which is always ground for irregularities.

Some government departments have questioned whether there is enough manpower to deal with the increased paperwork.

The issue represents the tussle between competing objectives of effective counter-terrorism and boosting tourism. While government feels that easier visa norms make it possible for terrorists like Headley and, early on, the founder of Jaish-e-Mohammad Maulana Masood Azhar, to seek to target India, a tighter visa regime is fraught with the risk of putting off tourists.

Business visa norms have already been tightened after the government decided to clamp down on their misuse to bring in Chinese workers. Now, these workers will be required to take employment visas.

For Pakistan origin people from third countries, coming to India now will become a story of long waits because their visas will have to be processed by the home ministry in Delhi, which is not known for its efficiency or fast pace. This means Indian families with kin in Pakistan or other countries will find it difficult to have family events without going through interminable waits at the visa offices.

This would apply to people with third country passports but who have a Pakistani parent or even grandparent.

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