Questionable restrictions

The truth of the matter is that neither Canada nor India has a leg to stand on when it comes to arbitrary denial of visas. Ottawa, whose troops are engaged in a brutal war in Afghanistan, does not smell of roses. New Delhi’s culpability in abuses at home by its security forces is recorded in detail by private monitoring groups. – Photo on file
When Canada recently denied visas citing human rights concerns to a number of Indians identified with the security establishment – ranging from the Armed Forces, the Border Security Forces and the Intelligence Bureau – the Indian foreign ministry reacted with a stern demarche to the Canadian high commissioner in Delhi. News reports say the Canadians had subsequently regretted the blanket denial of visas to the Indians.

The truth of the matter is that neither Canada nor India has a leg to stand on when it comes to arbitrary denial of visas. Ottawa, whose troops are engaged in a brutal war in Afghanistan, does not smell of roses. New Delhi’s culpability in abuses at home by its security forces is recorded in detail by private monitoring groups.

There are reports that Major Avtar Singh, formerly of India’s Kashmir-based 35th Rashtriya Rifles, an ex-officer accused by a Budgam court of murdering the Kashmiri human rights lawyer Jalil Andrabi in 1996, is settled in Canada. If this is true then Canada’s great show of concern for human rights looks a little hollow.

In any case, the noisy exchange between Canada and India over visa denials is farcical. The question that ought to be asked of Canada’s excessive zeal in denying entry permits to serving or former Indian officers applies equally to New Delhi. What about the fact that intellectuals and academics from a number of countries who wish to visit New Delhi must now be cleared by the home ministry, as though they are guilty of some unnamed crime until they can be proven innocent. This is an outrage.

According to a recent Indian government circular, scholars from Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, Iran, Iraq, Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Sudan, as well as scholars from any country who are of Pakistani origin, will no longer be given visas to attend conferences, seminars and workshops in India unless the home ministry grants them “security clearance” in advance.

This is what the security guidelines state: Any event that is either (i) on a subject which is political, semi-political, religious, communal or linked to human rights, or which has a bearing on external relations or national security, or (ii) is to be held in an area requiring an inner line or restricted area permit regardless of subject, or (iii) is to be attended by scholars from the eight red-flagged countries, must be referred to the ministry of home affairs (MHA) for “security clearance” at least six weeks before its commencement date. According to the MHA the lengthy timeline is needed to “ensure that security clearance for the event and for the participants could be suitably assessed… Security vetting is a time-consuming process”.

The home ministry’s prejudice against intellectuals does not apply to tourists and is hardly likely to prevent terrorists from coming to India. Most will come without a visa; the others will have the ingenuity, which they have usually shown, to come up with all the required paperwork.

Hypocrisy aside, in its essence, for states to be alert to human rights violators from entering their country is not a bad idea. The visa move is rooted in a sound policy. It is the execution of the policy that is questionable. In 2002, Canada passed the Immigration and Refugee Protection Act to take account of its Crimes against Humanity and War Crimes Act introduced two years earlier. Section 35(1)(a) of the immigration act clarifies that persons who “might have” committed an act of commission or omission outside Canada that falls under the definition of genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity are ineligible for entry into the country. It would not be a bad idea if India too had a mechanism in place to discourage war criminals from entering the country. This is not to say that there are not quite a few home grown variety within the country.

At any rate the visa spat has got some of the most hawkish Indian newspapers to look inwards. The Mail Today offered the following comments: “It would be difficult to deny that Indian police, military and intelligence organisations have not been involved in committing human rights violations.

“Proof of the fact comes from our own administrative and judicial processes which have punished people for custodial deaths and torture. In response to a series of reports on the human rights situation in Kashmir, the home ministry report for 1995-96 acknowledged that 272 J&K security personnel including 153 BSF, 80 CRPF and 39 army personnel had been “sacked, jailed or disciplined” for abuses committed in the previous five years.

“But this does not tell the story of scores of cases that were simply papered over.

“Earlier in May, for example, the chief judicial magistrate of Srinagar has asked the CBI (federal Indian police) to inform it on the progress of a warrant issued against the alleged killer of Andrabi, Major Avtar Singh (believed to be living in Canada). Among the better known cases is that of Masroof Sultan, a college student who was arrested by the BSF in 1993, taken with three other young men to an interrogation centre and tortured. The young men were then taken at night to a place near where they had been picked up and shot. Masroof’s uniqueness is that he miraculously survived to tell his tale.

“It is true that the BSF, since 2005, has been involved only in border security duties, but it has a dark past in Kashmir that should not be forgotten.”

As far as Canada is concerned, its soldiers’ culpability in racist crimes in Somalia, are well documented. The Somalia affair was a 1993 military scandal later dubbed “Canada’s national shame”. It peaked with the brutal beating death of a Somali teenager at the hands of two Canadian soldiers participating in humanitarian efforts in Somalia. The crime, documented by grisly photos, shocked the Canadian public and brought to light internal problems in the Canadian Airborne Regiment. Military leadership came into sharp rebuke after a CBC reporter received altered documents, leading to allegations of a cover up.

Interestingly, India’s own policy over visas and human rights abuses came to be discussed together when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh addressed a rare news conference last week. An Indian journalist asked why the prime minister had not followed up on his announcement declaring Jammu and Kashmir as a zero tolerance zone for human rights abuse. Dr Singh said he would look into it. A harassed-looking Japanese correspondent spent his question seeking an explanation from the prime minister why it was now taking forever for foreign correspondents to be given accreditation (which once used to come with visas). The prime minister said he would look into it.