A potential crisis in bilateral relations with Washington was averted at the eleventh hour last month when the United States reversed a decision to deny visas to all Muslim journalists who were part of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s official media delegation to the G20 summit in Pittsburgh.

The visas, which were denied pending “additional administrative processing,” were only granted one day before the Prime Minister’s departure following a demarche – or diplomatic request — from the highest levels of government.

None of the Indian officials involved in the process wished to speak on record about the incident, which they said was a clear case of religious “profiling” by the U.S. embassy in Delhi.

As always happens during Prime Ministerial visits, the passports of the accompanying official media delegation were sent a few days in advance to the U.S. embassy for the necessary visas to be stamped. But when the passports were returned, three journalists – all of them Muslim – were handed yellow visa denial slips stating that they had been found “ineligible to receive a visa under Section 221(g) of the Immigration and Nationality Act.”

The yellow slips said their application required “additional administrative processing before a final decision can be made.” But there was no indication of how long this could take. The embassy note tersely stated that applicants would be contacted “once this administrative processing has been completed.” U.S. diplomats informally said this process could take anywhere from four to eight weeks or longer.

With the Prime Minister set to fly out in less than two days, this ‘don’t call us, we’ll call you’ message sent alarm bells ringing in South Block. Officials were quick to realise the political consequences of the American side essentially disallowing the only Muslims in the Prime Minister’s delegation from travelling with him to Pittsburgh.

The three individuals concerned were senior and respected journalists who, like other members of the delegation, had been security cleared. One was an editor of a popular regional daily and two of them had travelled abroad with the Prime Minister before.

“No discrimination”

U.S. officials informally told this reporter that the names of three men had triggered a computerised alert for additional verification. But when The Hindu formally asked the U.S. embassy in Delhi whether it was a coincidence that all the Muslims in the delegation were so selected for additional visa screening and that none of the non-Muslims were, embassy officials said “the U.S. Government does not discriminate on the basis of race or religion.”

They added: “Since many applicants are subject to additional administrative processing, the U.S. Government urges all visa applicants to apply for visas as far in advance of the trip as possible. We also routinely expedite cases in which individuals require to travel urgently.”

Asked whether it was U.S. policy to subject visa requests by Indian Muslims to a lengthier process of background checking, they said consular officers “review each application and make a determination regarding whether an applicant … needs additional processing. These decisions are based on the review of each individual’s case.”

With Dr. Singh set to travel again to Washington on an official visit this November, The Hindu asked whether Muslim members of his official delegation could again experience delays in their visa applications. The embassy officials replied: “This question should be directed to the Government of India. They know the dates of the visit and who will be travelling with the Prime Minister. Have they already applied for visas?”