Lessons from the Dolkun Isa Visa Fiasco
The Indian government has rightly come in for a significant amount of criticism for backtracking and withdrawing the visa it had granted to Mr. Dolkun Isa, a Uyghur activist, after the Chinese government complained. While there is almost universal condemnation of the incompetence of the Indian state in efficiently managing something as simple as granting a visa, opinions about the strategic consequences of the Indian government’s actions are more divided. Much of the commentary has been highly partisan. Still, this episode also raises important questions about how Indian foreign policy and security policies are managed.
We do not yet know, of course, the real story behind why an Indian visa was granted to Mr. Isa or why it was later withdrawn, or why many other Chinese dissidents were also refused visas to attend a conference that presumably relevant government agencies had already approved. Early press stories suggested that New Delhi granted the visa to Mr. Isa apparently in retaliation for China blocking India’s efforts to place Masood Azhar, head of the Jaish-e-Mohammad (JeM) terrorist group, on a UN terrorist list established by the UN Security Council’s (UNSC) Al-Qaeda Sanctions Committee. (China had claimed that India’s application did not “meet the requirements”). The consistency in these stories suggest that the story was based on briefing by senior government officials. Indeed, some reports quoted “top sources” as saying that this decision was taken at the “highest level” in the government. This is useful to keep in mind because once the government decided to withdraw the visa, the story became one of an inter-departmental snafu between the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) and the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA). It is also possible that the visa was granted by mistake because Indian officials did not realise Mr. Isa’s name was on an Interpol red corner notice. Still, the government took no steps to deny these stories in the first two days, before the visa was retracted, suggesting that something more than an interdepartmental issue was at play. Some reports have even suggested that India and China had worked out a quid-pro-quo on the Masood Azhar issue, but this appears highly doubtful.