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Refuse, refute, revoke

How the government tries to muzzle criticism from the international community

A valid visa doesn’t guarantee entry to a country.
A valid visa doesn’t guarantee entry to a country. (Photo: iStock)

As a wave of protests swept the country after the passage of the Citizenship (Amendment) Act (CAA) last month, a photograph of a foreign national at a rally in Chennai went viral on social media. He was later identified as 24-year old Jakob Lindenthal, an exchange student from Germany studying at the Indian Institute of Technology, Madras. A poster he held suggested that moves like the CAA were similar to ones seen in Nazi-era Germany, warning, “1933-1945. We have been there."

Days after the protest, he was called by the immigration department in Chennai to purportedly discuss his residence permit. “They asked about CAA and my participation in anti-CAA protests," he told The Indian Express later. “Towards the end, they said I may have to leave the country immediately for violating my student visa rules."

The incident generated a furore, also since it came at a time the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government is seeing the largest civil disobedience movement in its five-and-a-half-year rule. A day after Lindenthal returned to Germany, a Norwegian tourist, identified as Janne-Mette Johansson, was similarly asked to leave for participating in an anti-CAA protest in Kochi. Anoop Krishnan, an official from the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) told PTI that Johansson had “violated the visa rules" by participating in the protest march.

These incidents renewed debates on the Indian state’s seeming intolerance towards dissent and criticism, including by members of the international community. Over the years, several journalists, academics and human-rights workers from abroad, documenting contentious issues in India like human rights violations in Kashmir or civil resistance against the Kudankulam nuclear power plant, have been denied visas, deported or abruptly asked to leave the country. The practice isn’t new, but observers say it appears to be more frequent now.

“While the Constitution guarantees the right to free speech and expression, it is applicable only to Indian citizens, not foreigners," says Mihir Desai, a human rights lawyer from Mumbai. “So when it comes to not granting visa or deporting someone, the government might be legally empowered to do it, but it’s often seen to do it only in the case of its critics."

Foreigners can apply for various kinds of visas to enter India: tourist, student, journalist, business, etc. based on the purpose of their travel. Participation in civil resistance or political activities is not explicitly forbidden, however.

“The conduct of the foreigner needs to be bound within the purpose," says Gaurang Kanth, managing partner of the Delhi-based law firm Kanth and Associates. “Any deviation of the conduct...automatically tantamounts to a violation of the visa condition," he says. A Supreme Court judgement in the case of Louis De Raedt v. Union of India in 1991, he adds, also established that the executive has “unfettered discretion in determination of violation of any visa condition".

It is probably not surprising then that some visitors are deported without being given reasons. It’s what happened with Angana Chatterji, an Indian anthropologist and historian based in the US, who set up the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir, a civil society investigation into the unrest in Kashmir and its consequences, in 2008. During a visit to India in November 2010, Chatterji’s partner Richard Shapiro, an academic, was refused entry at immigration. “They had allowed him in at first but after seeing he was with me, called him back and cancelled the entry stamp," Chatterji told Lounge in a Skype call. Being an Indian citizen, she alleges, the officials couldn’t refuse to let her in and went for her partner instead.

International non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have also been at the receiving end. In 2016, then home minister Rajnath Singh said the government had banned over 20,000 NGOs from accepting contributions from foreign sources for allegedly violating provisions of the Foreign Contribution (Regulation) Act (FCRA). Amnesty International, which has been critical of India’s chequered record on human rights, and Greenpeace, which campaigns on environmental issues, have had their bank accounts frozen. At least three of their members have been denied entry and deported despite valid visas.

The home ministry didn’t respond to Lounge requests for an interview.

“Critics of India’s policies are smeared as being foreign agents or having an anti-national agenda," says Aakar Patel, former head of the India chapter of global rights group Amnesty International. “You could be an arms dealer and get a visa but if you are from a humanitarian organization, it’s nearly impossible to get in. Sometimes, they won’t deny a visa, only sit on your passport until you ask for it back."

An award-winning foreign journalist, who had documented unethical business practices and human rights violations during an earlier visit to India, recalls that the visa application for a follow-up visit was denied last year. The journalist, who did not want to be named, applied again—this time proposing a story on a popular Hindu tradition. The visa was granted, albeit with a rider: Any deviation from the research would be violating the terms of the visa.

“One of India’s biggest achievements is to bring together people of so many ethnic, linguistic and religious groups and ensure their peaceful, democratic participation," the journalist says. “But if a government controls criticism of India’s changing ethos and attempts to silence outside voices, isn’t that anti-national?"

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