The Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) took a long time to see the light, but it has finally done the right thing in removing, at least partially, the unreasonable re-entry restriction imposed since 2009 on foreigners with long-term Indian visas. After it came to light that David Headley, a Pakistani-origin U.S national, had visited Mumbai on a long-term visa several times to scout sites for the November 2008 Lashkar-e-Taiba attacks, the MHA acted in a knee-jerk fashion to ban tourists with multiple entry visas from re-entering India within two months of leaving the country. That the restriction did not apply to multiple entry business visas — the very visas Headley had used for his frequent trips — was the first absurdity about the new rule. While the restriction did nothing to deter would-be terrorists, the two month rule affected thousands of tourists who would have wanted to use India as a base to travel through South Asia. Most importantly, it affected Indian-origin foreign nationals who did not have a Person of Indian Origin or Overseas Citizen of India card. True, arrivals for 2010 were higher than for the previous year, when in-bound tourism in India was washed out under the combined effects of the global economic downturn and the 2008 Mumbai attacks. But for a country trying to get more tourists to come, the restrictive rule marked it out as one that did not follow global best practices in its visa policy.
The government has now mercifully relaxed this unwarranted and ineffective restriction, while retaining it for citizens of some countries, namely Afghanistan, China, Iran, Pakistan, Iraq, Sudan and Bangladesh. These are also countries whose nationals need individual security clearance from the MHA before they can be given visas to attend conferences, seminars or academic meetings. North Block justifies this discrimination in the name of national security, the same alibi it invokes in order to insist that all academic conferences where foreign scholars are invited must be officially vetted before visa clearances are issued. This practice, which sometimes leads to the denial of visas for scholars whose views the Indian state finds disagreeable, is at odds with the country’s image as a vibrant democracy and needs urgent review. Research visas for bona fide scholars are also hard to come by, and can be impossible to obtain if the scholar wants to study a subject that the MHA considers “sensitive.” Unreasonable visa restrictions affect friends of India — both current and potential — more than those with evil designs against India. They can never be a substitute for an efficient intelligence-gathering system, which may be harder work but which would definitely prove more fail-safe in the long run.