India’s visa rule is unfairly persecuting innocent Pakistanis
Being born in Pakistan is not a evidence of predisposition to commit terrorist acts. The visa rules are racist, and must change
Most people would be shocked if they went to the visa website of a London embassy and read: “Processing time is two to three days for British citizens, but seven to eight weeks for British citizens of Jewish origin”. Indeed, advertising an intention to discriminate is contrary to the Race Relations Act 1976. Yet, explicit discrimination of this kind can be found on the website for visas for India: “Processing time for UK Nationals is a minimum of 2-3 working days … Processing time of applications received from persons of Pakistani origin [including British citizens] will be minimum 7-8 weeks.”
Pakistani ethnic origin is detected through questions about place of birth and previous nationality, both for the applicant and their parents. Disclosing a link with Pakistan triggers demands for extra information and a long processing period, which in many cases makes travel to India impossible. India is effectively banning more than half a million British citizens of Pakistani origin from travelling to India as tourists, on business, or to participate in academic conferences or student exchange programmes.
Looking behind a British passport and treating an individual differently, because they or their parents were born in Pakistan, is direct or indirect racial discrimination violating UK, European and international human rights law. It cannot be justified under any circumstances, because it is a first step down a very slippery slope of racism.
In 1933, Nazi Germany excluded German citizens of Jewish origin from the civil service. In 1942, the United States arrested all US citizens of Japanese origin living on the west coast, and transferred them to prison camps. It makes no difference that India is practising racial discrimination against British citizens rather than its own. India would object very strongly if Australia, Canada, China or the US made it much harder for British citizens of Indian origin (but not Pakistani origin) to obtain a tourist visa.
India’s racist visa rule is an irrational response to the tragic attacks in Mumbai in November 2008. The attackers arrived by sea, without visas, deliberately evading all border controls. No visa rule of any kind could have stopped them. The rule appears to be based on the case of the convicted terrorist David Headley, a US citizen of Pakistani origin who made several trips to Mumbai to scout locations for the attacks. But when he applied for an Indian visa, Headley failed to disclose his previous name, and falsely stated that his father’s name was Headley. Terrorists planning to kill or assist killers will not be deterred by questions on a visa application form. They will give false information. But thousands of innocent people of Pakistani origin who answer truthfully may find themselves barred from India.
Under UK, European and international human rights law, suspicion of potential to commit a crime must be based on an individual’s own conduct, not on their racial or ethnic origin. India should apply the same security check to all British citizens applying for visas. If the check reveals no cause for concern, the visa should be issued. Being born in Pakistan, or the child of a person born in Pakistan, is not a crime, nor evidence of predisposition to commit terrorist acts in India. In the 1980s, India could have been accused of “exporting terrorism”. The 1985 bombing of an Air India 747 flying from Montreal to London killed 329 people, including 280 Canadian citizens. This terrible crime was linked to extremist Sikh nationalism in India. Should Canada have retaliated by adopting a similar rule, requiring British and US citizens of Indian origin to apply for visas, issued after a long wait, if at all?
During the painful recovery from traumatic terrorist attacks, it is tempting for governments to abandon human rights principles and impose sweeping restrictions on the innocent. But this temptation must be resisted. This weekend, we celebrate the independence days of Pakistan and India, and recall (many of us with shame) Britain’s role in the partition and its bloody aftermath, which includes the unfinished business of Kashmir.
The vast majority of British citizens sincerely hope that India and Pakistan will find a way to end their cold war. But India’s decision to punish British (US, Canadian and other) citizens of Pakistani origin, by making it extremely difficult for them to travel to India, will do nothing to help resolve its conflict with Pakistan. On the contrary, it will cause those who are denied visas to resent India for excluding them, rather than praise India’s democracy and economic growth, after their visits. And it puts British universities and employers sending groups of students or staff to India in a very difficult position. Should they cancel the trip for all, or say to their fellow British citizens “No Pakistanis need apply”?