Chinese diplomats may insist their policy of issuing a loose visa to Indian passport holders from Kashmir is not new but the fact is that scores of Kashmiris have travelled to China before on visas that were stamped in their passports rather than stapled to it. “I have travelled to China three times,” the former Water Resources Minister Saifuddin Soz told The Hindu. “My passport shows my address in Baramulla, Kashmir but each time I have travelled with a visa stamped inside.” Mr. Soz said the new policy of issuing Chinese visas on a separate sheet was “completely unacceptable.”

“We knew they were doing this for passport holders from Arunachal Pradesh but until recently, Kashmiris, like other Indians travelling to China, were always issued regular visas stamped on a passport page,” a senior official from the Ministry of External Affairs said. “That now appears to have changed.”

At the same time, the Chinese embassy appears to be correct in noting that travellers with a stapled rather than stamped visa sheet have not been stopped in the past, though the number of such travellers — presumably all of them from Arunachal Pradesh — was itself very small. In 2007, Professor Marpe Sora from Itanagar, apparently the first Arunachali to visit China, did so with a visa that was not stamped in his passport. He was not stopped by airport authorities in India.

The issue has cropped up now, a Chinese diplomat told The Hindu, “purely because of the change of mind of your authorities. They know much better than anybody else.”

Indian officials deny this. “If an Indian citizen left the country in the past with a loose leaf visa, this has more to do with our lax border control systems. That doesn’t mean the Government of India has accepted the validity of this kind of visa.” Until recently, the number of people from Arunachal Pradesh or Jammu and Kashmir visiting China was very low. So it was possible such Chinese visas passed under the radar, the officials said. “But now that this has been brought to our notice, we cannot accept it.”

Whatever the compulsions of grand strategy and politics, however, the new visa policy has been a calamity for those Kashmiri students who were hoping to go to China for higher education, many of them on full scholarships. In the case of one Srinagar-based student, who sought The Hindu’s assistance in the matter after being turned back from Delhi airport twice, the Chinese university where he was to be enrolled informed him that it could no longer hold his place and that he would have to re-apply for admission again next year.

Though several Kashmiris have been stranded as a result, the new Chinese policy is not without its wrinkles. A Kashmiri student domiciled in Srinagar, who applied for a visa to study at the same university as his friend who had received a stapled visa three days earlier, was given a stamped visa. Asked about this and other examples from the past of Kashmiris receiving stamped visas, the Chinese diplomat said this was “not possible.”

In the case of Arunachalis, too, there are idiosyncrasies. A former Member of Parliament from Arunachal Pradesh, Kiran Rijju, got a visa to visit China in 2008 after he surrendered his diplomatic visa for a normal Indian one. His visa was stamped inside his passport, perhaps because it gave a Delhi permanent address and his birthplace was listed only as ‘Nakhu, A.P.’ “I think the fact that the State’s name was left abbreviated may have made the granting of the visa easier,” Mr. Rijju told The Hindu.

In the case of three Kashmiri students, whose story was reported recently in the Srinagar-based Greater Kashmir, two received loose visas and were not allowed to leave Delhi while a third got a stamped visa because he was settled in Delhi. “When we have the same Indian passport, why [is] a different visa issued to other Indian citizens?,” one of the students who was unable to fly was quoted as saying.

While the new visa policy has left dozens of Kashmiri students in India frustrated, there is worry about what will happen to those already pursuing their studies in Chinese universities. Though all of them are on stamped visas, many fear being given a loose visa when they return home and apply for their annual extension, thereby getting stranded mid-course.

Countries issue separate paper visas for one reason alone: so that no trace of the traveller having visited is left behind. Sometimes, as in the case of Israel, this is done to protect the traveller from being denied entry to a country which regards a prior visit to the Zionist state as a disqualification. But the absence of an official seal in a passport also helps one country with a territorial claim or dispute on another from extending legal recognition to the latter’s possession of the territory under question.