Inaccessible India

Visas are once again a sticking point for Indian diplomacy. Britain and America may soon implement policies that inconvenience Indians going abroad for tourism and work. New Delhi has protested these moves, and threatens to challenge the American proposal at the WTO.

Although these visa regimes are myopic, India cannot claim to have done much better. The Home Ministry maintains a tight grip on who can enter the country, how many times, for how long, and for what purpose. The difference between us and Britain and America is that while their motives are economic — to stem the flow of jobs and welfare payments to foreigners — ours are security related. And inexplicably, our government views workers, students and researchers as the greatest threat.

A major policy change after the 26/11 attacks required a two-month hiatus between trips for foreigners with Indian business visas. The problem with the attacks, however, was not that David Headley entered India on a U.S. passport but that the government took three days to fully overcome a very small number of attackers. In the aftermath, we defaulted to our habit of creating security not by strengthening domestic institutions and building legitimacy for our external influence but by shutting ourselves in, hoping that leaving the door open just a crack will keep the wolves at bay.

Parliamentary debates are similarly misguided. Of the 148 visa-related questions so far in the 15th Lok Sabha, many pertain to restrictive visa regimes abroad, denials of visas to Indians, and hikes in visa fees; others ask why so many Chinese workers are in India, and how many Pakistanis have overstayed their visas. Not a single MP asks why there are so few Chinese and Pakistani visitors in India, or whether it might be prudent to liberalise our visa regime.

Specific categories

Student and research visas to India are notoriously difficult to obtain, especially for those of Pakistani or Chinese origin, let alone citizenship. All students, once in India, are required to register with the government within 14 days and produce an array of documentation proving their educational status, nationality and residence in India. According to the Home Ministry, foreign students are normally allowed only one entry per year, but this number may be increased for “bona fide” reasons such as family emergencies. In some cases of “extreme compassion” such as the death of a relative or friend back home, “even a second return visa may be granted subject to usual checks.”

Our approach to immigration reveals our unwillingness as a society to trust foreigners. Frequently in our foreign relations, so closely are our cards held to our chest that others assume we lack a strategy for playing the game. The problem, however, lies elsewhere: we have become wary of those who do not look like, speak like, or think like us. The result is general avoidance of any closeness with or commitments to foreigners, irrespective of their stripe. A 2006 survey found that although India’s elites feel more warmly towards the U.S. government than the Chinese government, they place similar levels of trust in both. Far from being natural allies with another liberal democracy, we do not even trust it much more than we trust an authoritarian neighbour that clearly seeks to contain us strategically.

We were not always like this. Mahatma Gandhi once encapsulated the worldliness of his generation in a thoughtful dictum: “I want the culture of all lands to be blown about my house as freely as possible. But I refuse to be blown off my feet by any.” This self-assured eclecticism of Gandhiji and his contemporaries has today given way to blanket fear and distrust of global currents. We see the insidious “foreign hand” in every facet of public life, be it private investment, public education or social movements.


There are three ways in which our trust issues may end up costing us. First, societal connections matter. Today, an Indian scholar has a much easier time entering China for an academic conference than vice versa. Indian think tanks now prefer Singapore as a venue even for Track II dialogues so that Chinese participants may attend easily. Without being more trusting, we stand little chance of having peaceful relations with our neighbours. Second, the attractiveness of one’s culture, institutions and policies can act as a source of influence, or soft power, in international politics. Our calculated inscrutability squanders this resource by undermining the positive image we seek to project to outsiders. Finally, in a world where the competitive edge between economies is determined by the intensity of education, research and innovation, our ingrained scepticism keeps the world’s best and brightest from seeking opportunities in India.

Perhaps, our paranoia is warranted. Surrounded by dangerous adversaries, wracked by externally aided violent insurgencies, buffeted by the harsh winds of global capital — we can only really trust ourselves. Of course, our knee-jerk distrust of foreigners would not be out of place if we were a small nation seeking to just get by. But one would hope we are more than that: our size and ambition dictate more cosmopolitan sensibilities. We only have to look east to Japan and west to America to understand that durable power is built on the back of an open society that invites talent from everywhere, even rival nations. The evidence lies in the 82,000 and 194,000 Chinese students in Japanese and American higher education respectively, many of them in highly technical and “strategic” fields. A comparable scenario for Pakistani or Chinese nationals in India is unthinkable.

If we seek prosperity and influence — or even if we just want better terms for our citizens going abroad — we need to engage with the world. This requires not just projecting India outward but also inviting the world in.

(Rohan Mukherjee is a founding member of the Youth Forum on Foreign Policy — > — and a doctoral candidate in politics at Princeton University. The views expressed are personal.)

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Printable version | Sep 25, 2020 10:38:03 PM |

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