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Wednesday, March 12, 2014
- “Imagine you have dual nationality, say Haiti and the United States. You go to apply for a visa at a foreign embassy in Washington, but are told that you can’t use your U.S. passport unless you renounce your Haitian nationality. If you don’t, you must apply and travel using your Haitian passport.”
Salman Noman, a 34-year-old American based in Chicago, uses this hypothetical scenario to illustrate the reality that he and an estimated 500,000 other dual American- Pakistani citizens face when it comes to applying for an Indian visa.
India and Pakistan have agreed to ease mutual visa restrictions, but until they actually do so, American citizens with dual Pakistani nationality will continue to face what they allege is discrimination by the Indian visa authorities.
“To top it all,” Noman told IPS, “Your adopted country, where you live, vote and pay taxes, doesn’t take up your case with the country that is so blatantly discriminating against you.”
Noman, a Georgetown University alumnus who runs his own software company, was naturalised as an American citizen in 2007. He is frustrated with India’s visa policies, as well as with the U.S. Department of State, which he contends does not take up this issue with sufficient vigor.
U.S. State Department spokesperson Noel Clay told IPS the State Department is aware that the Indian government “imposes different policies and requirements” when issuing visas to U.S. citizens of Pakistani ancestry.
“Unfortunately, the State Department is limited in its influence on foreign government visa and immigration actions,” he said. “Visas for travel to India are issued only by Indian authorities and are entirely under the purview of Indian laws, regulations, and procedures.”
This answer was exactly the same as a response Noman had received on Facebook from the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of South and Central Asian Affairs in response to a question regarding Indian visas.
Frustrated by Washington’s “non-committal stand”, Noman initiated a petition entitled, “Ask India to End Discrimination Against U.S. Citizens/Businesses”.
“If U.S. nationals of Pakistan origin, cannot use their U.S. passports while traveling to India, they lose their privileges as U.S. citizens, including U.S. consular access, trade treaties with India, business opportunities, when traveling in India,” the petition points out.
Such restrictions, imposed after the November 2008 Mumbai terror attacks facilitated by David Headley, an American citizen of Pakistani origin, affect more than just Americans with Pakistani connections.
A new visa rule imposed in May 2010 requires American citizens of Indian origin to produce a Renunciation Certificate to demonstrate that they are no longer citizens of India.
In addition, all travelers with multiple entry tourist visas are allowed “re-entry to India only after a period of two months between visits” – a curb that appears to be aimed at preventing more Headleys from going in and out of India as the terrorist did several times while on reconnaissance for the Mumbai attacks.
“India has every right to secure its borders from people like Headley,” argues Noman, “but let’s remember that it was lack of background checks and inefficiency in vetting visa applicants that led to his falsified visa application being accepted.”
Headley should not be used as an excuse to generalise about all U.S. citizens of Pakistani origin, he adds. “It feels terrible to be flagged without any reason,” he told IPS, “just because someone who shared similar background as you did something terrible.”
India and Pakistan have mutually restrictive visa policies, reminiscent more of a cold war situation than of two neighbours with so much cultural and linguistic affinity.
Both countries grant visas to each other’s citizens usually after drawn out processes. The visas are usually single-entry permits valid for a few weeks at most, and also for a limited number of cities. Visitors must enter and exit from the same points, using the same mode of transport, and report to the police within 24 hours of arrival and departure.
Until 2009, expatriate Indians and Pakistanis with foreign passports were exempt from these restrictions, even though their visa applications often took longer. American citizens of Pakistani descent had the same rights and privileges as other American travelers.
The new restrictions are based more on “bureaucratic processes” than on security concerns, believes Ibrahim Sajid Malick, a New York-based technologist and former journalist of Pakistani origin, married to a woman of Indian origin.
He calls on India to “streamline the process” and “identify the individuals who may pose a threat”, pointedly asking, “If the Western Union can check up on an individual within minutes, why can’t embassy officials?”
Malick, who is familiar with ‘know your customer’ information gathering tools, told IPS, “The only people who can fool the system are those who are part of the system,” as was Headley, who was a paid informer for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration.
He questions whether India is trying improve security or simply keep Pakistanis and people of Pakistani origin out of the country, although he also points out that Pakistanis are received in the “most heartwarming way when they do visit India, and vice versa”.
“And yet both countries try their best to keep the people apart.”
The Indian Embassy in Washington did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails from IPS regarding questions raised by these issues.
Recent news does offer some hope, however. India and Pakistan have both agreed to a newly finalised draft that revises a bilateral visa agreement from 1974. The proposed easing of visa rules is aimed at normalising trade ties by the end of the year.
Until that actually happens, however, American Pakistanis wanting to visit India will just have to put up with the inconvenience of being dealt with by the Indian Embassy as Pakistanis, not Americans.