Delhi red-faced over U-turn on visa to U.S. official

Dr Lantos Swett from the US Commission for International Religious Freedom had been denied a visa last month

May 03, 2016 01:55 am | Updated 11:41 am IST - NEW DELHI:

A month after the Modi government refused visas to a U.S. delegation monitoring religious freedom, one of the delegation’s officials Dr. Katrina Lantos Swett, was permitted to attend the controversial anti-China conference in Dharmsala that ended on Sunday.

The incident has led to deep embarrassment in the government, The Hindu has learnt.

“I did travel to India and came back to the U.S. this weekend,” Dr. Lantos Swett told The Hindu over the telephone, confirming that she had indeed received an e-visa for tourism, and had attended the conference on China.

Adding to New Delhi’s discomfiture, within hours of her return to Washington, Dr. Lantos Swett released the latest U.S. Commission for International Religious Freedom (USCIRF) report, giving India a negative rating and keeping it on its watchlist of “Tier II countries”.

“As you know I wear two hats, both of the Lantos Foundation on Human Rights and the USCIRF. On this occasion I was not travelling as a representative of the USCIRF,” she explained.

On March 4 this year, the Indian Embassy in Washington had issued a statement saying the USCIRF had no “ locus standi ” to criticise India and there had been “no change in its policy” to deny its members visas.

Officials confirmed that they were aware of Dr. Lantos Swett’s visit, but refused to comment on how the prominent U.S. activist received a visa without prior clearance or red flags being raised over her status.

A senior official told The Hindu that there had been “no reversal of policy” on her visa, indicating that the fault lay in the visa and immigration departments for not having detected her application and for allowing it to be processed.

The official also indicated that there could be an overhaul of the visa granting process, that came under fire after it emerged that several Chinese dissidents including Uyghur activist Dolkun Isa, who faces an interpol notice, had received visas which were later cancelled.

More questions for govt. The government is likely to face more uncomfortable questions over why it granted a visa to Dr. Lantos Swett after denying entry to her delegation from the USCIRF only a month ago. In India, Dr. Swett attended the two-day conference in Dharamsala organised by U.S.-based dissident groups — Citizen Power for China and Initiatives for China — that are funded by the U.S. Congress-run National Endowment for Democracy.

Met Dalai Lama Dr Lantos Swett reportedly also met the Dalai Lama at Dharamsala. Significantly, the USCIRF was responsible for the U.S. government’s decision to deny then Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi a visa in 2005. Since 2009, India has been kept on the USCIRF’s watchlist, and the Commission has been consistently denied permission to visit India.

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