Saying that the US is planning to expand its visa operations in India in view of spiralling demand, the US on Friday clarified that there was no religious discrimination against Muslims while granting visas.
"We do not have special procedures or special rules for Muslims. Visas are refused in a majority of cases because applicants are not able to convince the authorities that they would come back to their country," Peter G Kaestner, consul general at the US embassy, said.
"We are not targeting Muslims. We don't have differential refusal rules for Muslims. We treat Muslims, Hindus, Sikhs, Jains or people professing any religion in the same manner," Kaestner, who took charge of the US visa department here recently, said.
He added that post 9/11, there was a worldwide decline in the number of visa applications, and in India also the number of people applying for the US visas had declined by 100,000. But, he stressed, since 2003 the demand for US visas has been steadily increasing.
"Fewer Muslims are getting visas after 9/11, but the reason for that is fewer people of all types, regardless of their religion, including Muslims, are applying for visas," Kaestner said when he was asked whether there was a decline in the number of visas granted to Muslims after the 9/11 attacks in Washington and New York.
In fiscal year 2003, the US embassy issued 2,77,000 non-immigrant visas and in 2004 305,000 such visas. "Last year, we gave 30,000 immigrant visas," Kaestner, who first came to India as a visa official in the '80s, said.
To cope up with the growing demand, the US plans to open a new consulate general building in Mumbai and another in Hyderabad. The new consulate general building in Mumbai costing $100 million is expected to be operational by 2008.
There is also an ambitious renovation plan for the consulate section in New Delhi and a proposal to introduce 10 new interviewing windows. Likewise, in Kolkata and Chennai new facilities will be introduced in the visa office, Kaestner said.
The refusal rate for US visas has dropped for the past five years, he said, while underlining that he would encourage more and more Indian students to apply for visas as studying in the US would help build strong bridges of friendship between the two countries.