A capricious visa regime

Print edition : August 01, 1998

Scientists from India have arbitrarily been denied visas by the U.S. and some other Western nations following the nuclear tests.

COLLABORATION between India and the United States in the defence arena was the first casualty of the sanctions imposed by the Clinton administration in the wake of the nuclear tests. Other Western nations, some of which did not go so far as to impose sanctions, too scaled down the level of their military cooperation with India. Now, however, the "review" of the extent of cooperation appears to have been extended to the scientific arena.

Four scientists of India's Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) who were working in the U.S. on the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project were told to leave almost immediately after India's nuclear tests. Further, the U.S. company GE withdrew product support for the LCA's F-404 engines. However, the Indian Defence Ministry is confident that the LCA project will be completed with an indigenously designed Kaveri engine.

The U.S. administration has also put the defence exchange programme on hold. In May, the Indian Government had given its approval for joint naval exercises with the U.S., to be conducted in two phases: the first in Hawaii in July/August, and the second off the Indian coast in December. In late May, the U.S. administration told the Indian Government that it was calling off the joint exercises.

AEC Chairman, Dr. R. Chidambaram, who was denied a U.S. visa following India's nuclear tests.-M. MOORTHY

Significantly, similar joint military exercises with Pakistan were not cancelled: one such exercise was held in the third week of July. From available indications, Washington blames India more than Pakistan for the situation in the subcontinent: in the U.S.' perception, it was India which triggered the arms race in the sub-continent by conducting nuclear tests first.

Immediately after the nuclear tests, many Western countries, with the exception of France, started denying visas to Indian military delegations. The United Kingdom spelt out its position clearly: in early July it announced that it had severed all contacts with nuclear scientists and establishments in India and Pakistan. India's Army and Navy chiefs cancelled their proposed visits to the U.K. Australia and New Zealand were the first to announce the severing of defence ties with India. Japan denied visas to officers from the National Defence College (NDC) who were on a familiarisation tour of the region. Some of the Scandinavian countries and Germany also adopted a tough policy while considering the visa applications of defence personnel and scientists associated with the DRDO and the Atomic Energy Commission.

The U.K. denied in May visas to four leading Indian scientists, among them Placid Rodrigues, Director of the Indira Gandhi Centre for Atomic Research, Kalpakkam, and his colleague Baldev Raj. Another scientist from the same institute, N. Ravi, was not issued a visa for a visit sponsored by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) in late-June. Rodrigues and Raj were scheduled to attend a meeting of editors of a scientific encyclopaedia at Oxford University.

It was the denial of a U.S. visa to Dr. R. Chidambaram, Chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, and Secretary, Department of Atomic Energy, that brought the arbitrary policy of visa denials into focus. Chidambaram was to attend a four-day executive committee meeting of an international group of crystallographers in the third week of July in Arlington, Virginia. He was denied a visa around the same time the Indian Prime Minister's special envoy Jaswant Singh was busy holding secret talks with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Strobe Talbott in Frankfurt.

Initially, sources in the U.S. Embassy in New Delhi said that Chidambaram had "withdrawn" his visa application. Chidambaram himself quickly refuted this and said that he had been denied a visa. U.S. administration sources in Washington later admitted that the denial of visa was "a direct result of the tests". Chidambaram, who is vice-president of the International Union of Crystallographers, hoped that the visa restrictions on Indian scientists would be eased soon. "The issue should not be blown out of proportion as it did not mean the end of Indo-American collaboration on science and technology," he said. The denial of a U.S. visa to Chidambaram citing the nuclear tests is somewhat ironical: in 1969, the U.S. Government had invited Chidambaram to witness an underground nuclear test.

The Indian Government has sought to underplay the denial of visa, evidently with the intention of keeping the Clinton administration in good humour.

The U.S. had indicated that after Pokhran-II, it would deny visas to "selected people", particularly nuclear scientists, to prevent "unwanted transfer of technology". The Clinton administration seems to have taken a decision in principle to ban the entry of Indian scientists and researchers on the grounds that they would profit from academic contacts and use the information to further India's nuclear and missile programme. A U.S. State Department official said that it was the prerogative of every country to formulate its visa policy. "While we encourage the free movement of people, we are looking carefully at people who can gain more information on nuclear and missile technology," the official said. He, however, denied that visa restrictions were part of the sanctions policy imposed by the U.S.

Many close relatives of top Indian scientists in the defence and atomic energy fields work in high-security research centres in the U.S. Others, who have secured admission to U.S. universities, are unsure if they will be given visas. A senior DRDO scientist's son, who has secured admission to a major U.S. university, has submitted his visa application and is waiting for it to be processed. There have been reports that more scientists from the Indian Institutes of Technology and the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research have been denied visas. Three scientists of the Indian Space Research Organisation are the latest victims of the capricious U.S. visa policies.

In olden days, only Communists were disallowed entry into the "land of the free". After the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Communists were removed from the list and were supplanted by citizens from states that have been classified as "terrorist" by the State Department. Among them are Cuba, Sudan, Syria, Iran and Libya. Today, the Clinton administration seems to be doing the same thing to Indian scientists.

Israel, whose clandestine nuclear weapons programme has been well documented, has no such problems. Many Israeli scientists have "dual" U.S. and Israeli citizenship and face no restrictions. The message is clear. Sanctions and visa restrictions will be lifted only after India makes significant concessions on the nuclear and missile fronts, which the BJP-led Government appears to be working towards.

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