How Headley got his Indian visa is the wrong question. What we should be asking is why his travel profile into and out of the country did not trigger alarm bells.

The denial of a visa to a potential terrorist may be a country’s first line of defence against terrorism but the effectiveness of this weapon is inversely related to the length and porosity of its land border and coast line.

The discovery that David Headley - the alleged Lashkar-e-Taiba operative now arraigned in Chicago for his involvement in multiple terror plots against India - had travelled to Mumbai as many as eight times sent shock waves through the security establishment not so much because he had visited but because he had done so on a valid visa. What has most alarmed our sleepy sleuths is the fact that Headley usually combined his visits to India with onward trips to Pakistan, where he is said to have received instructions from his handlers. That he stayed at the Taj Mahal and Oberoi Trident hotels in Mumbai, presumably as part of the reconnaissance team for the LeT’s November 2008 attack on the city, is of course the cherry atop this unwholesome confection.

In response, the Ministry of Home Affairs has decreed that no foreign tourist with a long-term, multiple-entry visa should be allowed to re-enter India within two months of his or her departure. When a number of countries protested and threatened reciprocal restrictions on Indians holding long-term multiple-entry visas, this rule was relaxed, but by introducing an element of subjectivity. “Bona fide tourists” who, after initial entry into India, plan to visit another country and re-enter India before finally exiting, the Ministry of External Affairs said last week, may now be permitted “two or three entries” by Indian missions and immigration check posts “subject to their submission of a detailed itinerary and supporting documentation.”

If the two-month rule was absurd to begin with, this proposed relaxation is even more comical. Have the babus in the MHA and MEA not heard of e-tickets and laser printers? Most terrorists don’t come to India with visas. And ‘tourists’ or ‘businessmen’ like Headley with mala fide intentions can easily procure fake or genuine “supporting documentation” to get past the new rule. But scores of bona fide visitors are likely to be deterred by the lack of predictability such rules engender. How many foreign visitors planning a combined trip to India and Nepal or India, Sri Lanka and Maldives would want to risk being denied re-entry? And since it is the responsibility of the airline to fly out passengers denied entry, one can imagine the confusion and uncertainty that will prevail at foreign airport counters when a tourist who has been to India within the previous 60 days arrives to check in with his “supporting documentation.” As for those on business visas, many of whom make dozens of trips into and out of India annually, the two-month rule would prove disastrous were it ever to be made applicable to them. And if the rule is not going to be applied to business visas, how would it help in a repeat of the Headley case considering that the U.S.-based alleged LeT operative had a long-term business visa?

Like so many other “tough” steps India takes to fight terrorism, the new visa rule is really quite useless. Worse, by shifting the burden of prevention to the consular end of the travel chain rather than to border management, the MHA’s move is fundamentally misplaced. Consider the Headley case. If an individual lies on his visa application about his parents’ names and nationalities, there is no way an Indian consulate abroad can catch him short of demanding an enormous amount of supporting documents from every applicant (and sending it on to the MHA). But immigration officers are trained to flip through the passport of an incoming visitor to see where else he’s been travelling and whether his wider itinerary fits in with the line of work he claims to be in. Even if an immigration officer saw no reason to detain Headley or deny him entry, the fact that he had made multiple visits between India and Pakistan in less than a year should have led to his file being discreetly referred to the intelligence agencies for a background check. Had the same agencies run through the names of all those who had stayed at the Taj and Trident hotels in the two years before 26/11 and cross-referenced that list to a list of those making frequent trips between India and Pakistan, Headley might have been arrested soon after the Mumbai attacks rather than nine months later.

Minister of State for External Affairs Shashi Tharoor may have been indiscreet in publicly questioning the utility of the new visa rules but there is no denying the need for a wider debate on the subject. Asking how Headley got his Indian visa is surely the wrong question. What we should be asking is why his frequent shuttling between Pakistan and India did not trigger alarm bells within the Bureau of Immigration.

In other words, the key to spotting and tracking potential terrorists lies in properly training our immigration officers, providing them with networked, state-of-the-art computers and generally improving the system of data storage and retrieval. Today, most immigration counters in India are staffed by policemen whose unfamiliarity with modern technology is apparent from the way they gingerly handle a mouse and keyboard.

Last month, North Block sources gleefully leaked the news about the MEA having ‘lost’ Headley’s visa papers. The charge turned out to be false, though that didn’t prevent the media from working itself into a frenzy for 48 hours. One wonders if the Bureau of Immigration has been able to locate all eight entry and exit immigration forms that Headley filled up and surrendered during his trips to India, as well as those tiny Customs declaration forms inbound passengers must hand in before they leave the airport? Since Headley would have been required to fill out local addresses each time, it would be interesting to see what he wrote and whether that could provide further clues about the extent of his travel and activity. CCTV footage in the arrival hall and passenger reception area on the dates he arrived might have captured a local associate saying goodbye or hello to Headley. Serious policing means doing this sort of tedious work rather than trying to limit the number of trips a foreign visitor makes to India.

Why sledgehammer approach?

Instead of looking inward at the manner in which it guards our frontiers and ports of entry and making urgent improvements, the Home Ministry is keen to fix what ain’t broken elsewhere. North Block ‘sources’ have made much of the fact that a Goa-based American national known to Headley has been living in India for nine years on 180-day tourist visas that he renewed by flying to Nepal just before the expiry date. But this kind of abuse of the system can be fixed by making a small change in the registration rules applied by the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO). Currently, only foreigners holding visas valid for longer than six months are required to register themselves. But the FRRO can just as easily declare that foreigners staying in India for more than 180 accumulated days must register themselves. Promulgating and enforcing such a rule would be a much better way of catching those like the Goa man who abuse Indian visa provisions. Why use a sledgehammer approach of banning re-entry to all tourists for two months when a scalpel would do the job so much more neatly?