On the face of it, neither the issue of a visa or its denial is a big thing in the hurly-burly of international relations, but there is a lot to be said if the context, the manner and the people involved are such that they leave a scar on the reputation of the world’s largest democracy.
That is what seems to have happened this week after the Home Ministry, the purveyor of the entry of foreigners into India, abruptly cancelled a visa issued to China’s dissident Uyghur leader Dolkun Isa after first issuing the controversial document in what was hailed as a diplomatic tit-for-tat.
In the murky lexicon of Chinese diplomacy, the Germany-based ethnic leader is a terrorist. The fact that India gave him something of a welcome to attend a conference of dissidents at Dharmashala, the seat of the Dalai Lama, was evidently a counter to China blocking the listing of Pakistan-based Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Masood Azhar as an international terrorist at the United Nations.
Diplomacy, however, is a messy business when it involves a strongarm neighbour. Though the Home Ministry has not specified why Isa has been denied the visa, there is an implicit acknowledgement of Chinese displeasure at the event.
The big question: why did New Delhi grant Isa an e-visa in the first place? The leader of the World Uyghur Congress represents the Muslim majority in China’s Xinjiang region. Does India have a measured position on where the pursuit of ethnic rights in Xinjiang graduates from legitimate democratic politics to terrorism?
China has been sore for decades that Tibet’s leader-in-exile, the Dalai Lama, is based in India, and an outlawed dissident going up to the Tibetan leader’s home is obviously not something it would be pleased with. But it would be naïve to think the pundits in New Delhi were not aware of what the mandarins in Beijing would feel. So the obvious conclusion is that between the South Block and North Block, there was a funk or faux pas that undid the early bravado.
A perception battle has been lost, and bilateral mistrust has gone up.
In hindsight, there was a matter of deeper principle because the Chinese foreign ministry described Dolkun Isa, a pro-democracy activist to the world, as a “terrorist on red notice of the Interpol and Chinese police”.
Clearly, retaliatory diplomacy cannot sit easy with a multilateral regime of terror control. India had in fact secured Abu Salem from Portugal more than a decade ago under Interpol rules, and discretion would have been the better part of its diplomatic valour this month, despite the fact that India had legitimate ground to be more than upset with the Masood Azhar episode. After all, Azhar was the man India had to release from prison in 1999 to secure the release of passengers on board the hijacked IC 814 – long before the current Pathankot attack investigation for which he is wanted.
In juggling principled multilateralism with tit-for-tat bilateralism, New Delhi has certainly missed a step somewhere. The measured way out is for India to rally the international community to find if China has abused Interpol’s Red Notice policies in Isa’s case. It is a long haul, but one that is on more solid ground.