Saturday, March 19, 2005

A Visa for Mr. Modi

The story of the rejection of visas to the former Chief Minister of Gujarat, a state of the Indian Union, is making the rounds, making for a lot of discussion and comment. There are several aspects to this denial.

One thread is the thought that this decision, especially the relative speed and alacrity with which it came, is part of the quest for winning Muslim hearts. Mmmm. I dunno. If the mainstream of the American Muslim community had been spearheading the campaign to stop Modi (rather than issuing "Me Too!" Action Alerts); or the rest of the non-Indian part of the Ummah really had had the guts to do much about Gujarat (like treating the BJP government and its supporters like pariahs socially and on the world stage), I would have felt better about the linkage. But as it stands, maybe that is why the US Administration did it. Maybe some Muslims will see it in that light--either as a sop being offered, or a more genuine friendly gesture. That might even be good for the atmosphere on the planet right now. I guess what I am saying is that this wonderful hope, aspiration, wish--whatever you want to call it--would have a better chance of coming true if the status of the Muslims of India was really a priority of the mainstream, right-leaning Muslim activists you see on TV every day and who send you action alerts and links to online petitions.

Several people have commented on this from the point of view that this is "not going to be good for anybody"--least of all Muslims--because it is just another case of censoring a message by excluding the messenger. (Interestingly, for example, that's the view taken on Chapati Mystery.) And the example of Tariq Ramadan's and Yusuf Islam/Cat Steven's cases is ready at hand. The point that comes to mind in that regard is firstly that neither Tariq R's, nor Cat Stevens sudden refusal of entry was presaged by a burgeoning movement or a coalition of activist groups asking for them not be allowed in. Without even discussing whether the moral fiber or where the three gentlemen fall within their respective communities (i.e., whether they are, respectively, moderates or extremists), there's something different between a coalition of concerned citizens being up in arms and an official in a vast bureacracy somewhere suddenly deciding that one person is not eligible for entry.

And at another level, it really was a violation of a couple of well-defined laws to let the man into the States. From news reports, specifically the sections under the US Immigration and Nationality Act that, an US embassy official said, "makes any government official who was responsible for, or directly carried out at any time, particularly severe violations of religious freedom ineligible for a visa". The law in question is the "International Religious Freedom Act of 1998." The US has some rather interesting laws in this regard. Naive, some may say, as they can sometimes lead to inconvenient situations in a diplomatic context--or can be just bad for business. Another example of such a law, rarely mentioned and very rare in the global community, is the law that makes it a crime under US law for a US citizen or business to give a bribe to a foreign government in another country. Naive? Idealistic? Whatever they are, such laws are not applied uniformly and systematicly. But even the selective application of such laws can have interesting side-effects. Especially, or even if, when applied by "the world's only hyperpower". Consider the possibility, with this precedent, of a gutsy little country standing up and denying Henry Kissinger a visa--and that's just for starters. It would definitely make Chris Hitchens's day!

An Indian friend or two have fobbed off the issue of this being "an insult to the nation", as Modi's supporters like to put it, by saying something to the effect of "He's not my leader; he's just part of a group that manipulated the system and exploited communal tensions to get into power." This is basically a variation of what detractors of US Presidents and citizens of military-ruled countries like Pakistan some times say; the "He's not my President" cop out. Well, as someone's who's often been on what I can only call the receiving end of a "World's Largest Democracy" or a "We're a Secular Democracy, and that's why we have a great country" lecture, I just don't really buy that. The question I would like to ask US voters is "But why are you so ineffective that the other guy got close enough for one county to tip the vote?" And to whiny Pakistanis, "So why don't you start a dang revolution? Why are there no riots in the streets when your democracies break records for corruption or your army rides roughshod over your constitution?" And in the same spirit, the question to Indians (both in India and in the diaspora) that only bother to send action alerts or online petitions is the same: What are you doing the other 364 days of the year? Have you done anything concrete? Oh, like maybe join an organization that isn't connected with your religious or ethnic community? (Applicable to Muslims and Hindus, South Indians and North Indians.) Or backed a political cause--or maybe a candidate? Would taking part in that thar great republic of yours be too much to ask of you? Heck those questions are just as appropriate for asking a lot of Pakistanis, too!

And then there's the matter of the Indian Government protesting the decision. When a diplomatic visa requested and vouched for by a sovereign government is denied by another sovereign government, that is not a routine act by a friendly country. It would have been pretty odd for the Indian government not to at least have issued a protest, given that. Not really an option for a country, nation, government that wants to be taken seriously as a regional, if not global, power. So what should the reaction of progressive/secular/anti-communal groups/forces/individuals be on the Indian Government's protest over the matter?

On the one hand one could choose to, given what I said about the denial of a diplomatic visa, cut them some slack--as long as they don't come out looking too much like they're doing this because they think well of Shri Narendra Modi.

But on the other hand, if one did want to be idealistic, maybe the question one should be asking is this: if a government or ruling party choses to vouch for a person like Narendra Modi, then doesn't it deserve just a bit of the treatment the GOI has just gotten from the United States Department of State? I mean, if you do something shameful and someone gets up and says that they won't let it by in the interest of giving you the respect you would otherwise be due as a self-respecting member of the community, is that really an insult? Or it is a case of just deserts? The question Indian progressives should then be asking is not why Delhi protested, but what the Government of India was doing allowing, or worse, wanting Narendra Modi, with all the baggage that he carries, fly the flag of Indian diplomacy in the first place?
Post a Comment