My report for IPS published on Feb 16, 2012; it’s not on the website anymore due to technical changes so I’m posting the unedited piece below:
Pakistani-Americans await changes to India’s discriminatory visa rules
By Beena Sarwar
BOSTON: India and Pakistan have agreed to ease visa restrictions on each other’s citizens – but until that actually happens, American citizens with dual Pakistani nationality will continue to face what they allege is discrimination by the Indian visa authorities.
“Imagine, you have dual nationality, say Haiti and the United States. You go to apply for a visa at a foreign embassy in Washington, but are told that you can’t use your U.S. passport unless you renounce your Haitian nationality. If you don’t, you must apply and travel using your Haitian passport.”
Salman Noman, a 34-year old American based in Chicago, uses this hypothetical scenario to highlight the reality that he faces when it comes to applying for an Indian visa, along with the estimated 500,000 other American citizens holding dual Pakistani nationality.
“To top it all,” Noman told IPS, “your adopted country, where you live, vote and pay taxes, doesn’t take up your case with the country that is so blatantly discriminating against you.”
Noman, a Georgetown University alumn who runs his own software company, was naturalized as an American citizen in 2007. He is frustrated with India’s visa policies, as well as the U.S. Department of State, which he contends does not take up this issue with sufficient vigor.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Noel Clay told IPS that the State Department is aware that the Indian government “imposes different policies and requirements” when it comes to issuing visas to U.S. citizens of Pakistani ancestry. He said that the Department “has raised its concerns with the Embassy of India in Washington” and that the U.S. Embassy has also discussed the issue with Indian government officials in New Delhi.
“Unfortunately, the State Department is limited in its influence on foreign government visa and immigration actions,” he said. “Visas for travel to India are issued only by Indian authorities and are entirely under the purview of Indian laws, regulations, and procedures. It is the sovereign prerogative of any country – including India and the United States – to issue or deny entry visas and to set the terms under which those decisions will be made.”
This is exactly the same answer Noman had received on facebook — Response to Twitter Question on Indian Visa’s by U.S. Department of State: Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs (Friday, January 27, 2012 at 4:06pm)
Frustrated by Washington’s “non-committal stand”, Noman initiated a petition titled: “Ask India to End Discrimination Against US Citizens/Businesses”.
“If US nationals of Pakistan origin, cannot use their U.S. passports while traveling to India, they lose their privileges as U.S. citizens, including U.S. consular access, trade treaties with India, business opportunities, when traveling in India,” notes the petition.
These restrictions, imposed after the Mumbai terror attacks of November 2008 facilitated by David Headley, an American citizen of Pakistani origin, don’t affect only Americans with Pakistani connections.
A new visa rule imposed in May 2010 requires American citizens of Indian origin to produce a Renunciation Certificate to demonstrate that they are no longer citizens of India.
In addition all travelers with multiple entry visit visas are allowed “re-entry to India only after a period of two months between visits” – a curb that appears to be aimed at preventing more Headleys from going in and out of India as the terrorist did several times while conducting the Mumbai attacks ‘recce’.
Indian visas in the USA are processed by Travisa, which lists these and other visa rules and requirements on its website.
“India has every right to secure its borders from people like Headley,” argues Noman, “but let’s remember that it was lack of background checks and inefficiency in vetting visa applicants that led to his falsified visa application being accepted.
Headley should not be used as an excuse to generalize about all U.S. citizens of Pakistani origin, he adds. Going by that logic, “Canada could have barred Indians after the 1985 Air Canada bombing by Sikh separatists but they did not. We (America) could have stopped issuing visas to Saudi Arabia and UAE after 9/11 but we did not.”
“Instead, we enhanced our ability to check applicant backgrounds so that legitimate travelers would not be hampered. It feels terrible to be flagged without any reason,” he told IPS, “just because someone who shared similar background as you, did something terrible.”
India and Pakistan have mutually restrictive visa policies, reminiscent of a cold war situation more than two neighbors with so much cultural and linguistic affinity.
Both countries grant visas to each other’s citizens usually after long-drawn out processes. The visas are usually single-entry permits valid for a few weeks at most, and then too only for a limited number of cities. Visitors must enter and exit from the same points, using the same mode of transport, and report to the police within 24 hours of arrival and departure.
Until 2009, expatriate Indians and Pakistanis with foreign passports were exempt from these restrictions, even though their visa applications often took longer. American citizens of Pakistani descent had the same rights and privileges as other American travelers.
The new restrictions are based more on “bureaucratic processes” than on security concerns, believes Ibrahim Sajid Malick, a New York-based technologist and former journalist of Pakistani origin, married to an Indian origin woman.
“India needs to streamline the process. Identify the individuals who may pose a threat. It’s easy to check up their profiles from bank details, Interpol, FBI files. If the Western Union can check up on an individual within minutes, why can’t embassy officials?” he asks.
Malick, who is familiar with ‘know your customer’ information gathering tools, told IPS that “the only people who can fool the system are those who are part of the system” – as Headley was, having been a paid informer for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
“India needs to do some soul searching,” said Malick. “Are they trying to be more secure, or are they trying to keep Pakistanis and Pakistani origin people out? If it costs more to conduct these background checks for Pakistanis, then charge us more for visas. But don’t keep us hanging like this.”
He points out that Pakistanis are received in the “most heartwarming way when they do visit India, and vice versa. And yet both countries try their best to keep the people apart.”
The Indian Embassy in Washington did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails from IPS requesting an answer to questions raised by these issues.
The good news is that the Joint Working Group (JWG) set up by the two countries to revise a Bilateral Visa Agreement in 1974, has just finalised a draft that both sides have agreed to.
India’s Commerce and Industry Minister Anand Sharma, who recently led a high-powered 120-plus strong business delegation to Pakistan, told reporters in Lahore that the “Commerce, Home and External Affairs secretaries are in the final stages of deliberations” about the draft.
The proposed easing of visa rules is aimed at normalising trade ties by the end of the year. Until that actually happens, American Pakistanis wanting to visit India will just have to put up with the inconvenience of being dealt with by the Indian Embassy as Pakistanis, not Americans.