India’s visa policy needs to evolve

India’s visa policy is affecting British businesses and universities

The Foreign Office said it would oppose any proposal to single out Britons of Pakistani origin. Well, it’s no longer just a proposal

I recently drew attention to India’s new “David Headley visa rule”, which discriminates against British citizens of Pakistani origin on the sole ground of their “race, … descent, or national or ethnic origin”, contrary to the international convention on the elimination of all forms of racial discrimination (ratified by India in 1968). Invited by India’s TimesNow TV news channel to discuss my Guardian article, I found myself accused of making a “rabid attack” on India’s reputation. My two opponents insisted that India has imposed a longer processing period of seven to eight weeks, but that there is no de facto ban on travel to India for British citizens of Pakistani origin.

Only the Indian government knows how many hundreds or thousands of applications by British, US, Canadian or other non-Pakistani citizens of Pakistani origin have been referred to Delhi, where they are gathering dust, with no decision taken in time to make travel possible. But I know of one. Sajid Suleman, a student in my human rights law class at King’s College London, is a British citizen – born in Pakistan and a UK resident since the age of two. Twice this year, he has attempted to travel to India.

In February, Sajid could not represent King’s at a moot court competition in Mumbai with his team-mate Aqeel Noorali, a British citizen of Indian origin. Despite applying four weeks before his flight (when the visa website said three to four weeks), and enlisting the support of his MP and a peer, Sajid could not obtain a visa in time and had to be replaced by a British citizen of Chinese origin, Christine Yu (whose ethnic origin allowed her to apply for her visa three days before her flight).

In April, Sajid was offered one of 200 places in the Study India programme administered by the British Council. On 15 August, 197 students (162 of them British citizens of non-Pakistani origin) started the three-week course in Delhi and Mumbai. But three British citizens of Pakistani origin were left behind in the UK, including Sajid and an Oxford University student (who wrote his dissertation on religious minorities and nation-building in Nehru’s India). Despite having the support of the programme, they could not obtain visas in time.

What if they had applied earlier? A British citizen of Indian origin, wishing to take his children to visit their grandmother in India, has waited six months for a clearance from Delhi with no reply. Why? His British wife was born in Pakistan.

Besides students and tourists, many others could be affected among Britain’s citizens of Pakistani origin, who number more than half a million. Take the case of a manager who wrote to me. Born and raised in the UK, she has been waiting since April for the visa she needs to visit her company’s call centre operations in India, despite having visited the centre in the past.

“I am now in a situation where my chosen profession is at risk of being seriously hindered if I am unable to travel to India. Companies, including my own, will most likely choose not to employ British Pakistanis in this field of outsource management,” she wrote.

India is effectively saying to British universities and employers: “You are welcome to come to India, but leave your British students and staff of Pakistani origin at home.” British universities and employers have a strong commitment to providing equal opportunies to all their students and staff. How can they maintain that commitment, and their ties with India?

No international human rights tribunal would uphold India’s visa rule. Judgments of the European court of human rights would be highly persuasive (but not binding). The court declared in Timishev v Russia (2005): “Racial discrimination is a particularly invidious kind of discrimination and … requires from the authorities special vigilance and a vigorous reaction …no difference in treatment which is based exclusively or to a decisive extent on a person’s ethnic origin is capable of being objectively justified in a contemporary democratic society…” In Cox v Turkey (2010), the court stressed that “immigration controls must be exercised consistently with [human rights] obligations”.

Not even the fight against terrorism can justify different treatment of individuals who hold the same passport, and are otherwise eligible for a visa, solely because of where they or their parents were born. Can terrorism be fought without writing racial discrimination into visa rules? Britain is a good example. From 1973 until 1998, the UK was a target for many terrorist attacks related to the conflict in Northern Ireland. Yet, throughout this entire 25-year period, citizens of the Republic of Ireland had a right, under EU law, to enter the UK without visas. For the UK, the equivalent of India’s stricter visa rule for British citizens of Pakistani origin would have been a stricter visa rule for US citizens of Irish origin. This would have been unthinkable.

In 2007, when the US proposed requiring British citizens of Pakistani origin (but no other origin) to apply for visas, a Foreign Office spokesman said:

“The Muslim community in the UK, including those of Pakistani origin, are an important part of our society and we would oppose strongly any proposal to single them out in response to the actions of terrorists. Furthermore, we will oppose any measure based on broad categories of religious, ethnic or other criteria.”

India has gone beyond a proposal, and is now applying ethnic criteria. When will the Foreign Office protest publicly?

Gandhi began his political career in South Africa, fighting racial discrimination against persons of Indian origin. The principle that governments must treat all citizens on the basis of their individual merit or conduct, not their “race, caste [or] place of birth”, is enshrined in article 15 of India’s constitution. Yet India is now discriminating against British citizens of Pakistani origin. People like Sajid, eager to visit and learn about India, can only hope that the Foreign Office will speak out on their behalf.

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