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India proposes, Indonesia harasses

Jakarta, Dec. 3: Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee has met Indonesia’s president five times in the last three years, but this country’s response to his extended hand of friendship is to treat Indians like common criminals.

Vajpayee signed a framework agreement for free trade with the entire Association of South East Asian Nations (Asean) amid great fanfare and publicity in Bali barely two months ago and proposed an open skies policy for all Asean airlines.

Indonesia’s response has been to bracket India along with some of the world’s outlaw nations such as Somalia, North Korea, Albania and Afghanistan. Even before the ink dried on Vajpayee’s signature in Bali, the Indonesians sent out a clear message that Indian businessmen are not wanted here — free trade or no free trade.

For over a month now, passports and return or onward air tickets of Indians arriving here for business, tourism or anything else are routinely seized by immigration officials at the airport and sent to the directorate general for immigration in the city.

The hapless Indians have to trudge to that office, wait in queues along with illegal immigrants and other similar offenders or grease the palms of Indonesia’s notoriously corrupt officials at that office to retrieve their passports and tickets in order to get out of the country — more often than not with relief.

Among the victims of such humiliating treatment a few days ago was an Indian working for the UN and his wife.

The Indonesian government’s action has revived memories of the high-handed detention of Arun Jain, chairman and chief executive of Chennai-based Polaris Software Lab Ltd., by owners of a local bank at their headquarters last year with the support of Jakarta police.

Polaris officials were threatened by executives of Bank Artha Graha who brandished a gun in their effort to extort $10 million from the Indian company, sources here said.

External affairs minister Yashwant Sinha and the rest of South Block came down like a ton of bricks and made it clear to the Indonesian government at very high levels then that it would not put up with such gangsterism against Indians and consequently Jain and his colleagues were released amid bad publicity for Indonesia in the media across South East Asia. But New Delhi’s firm message to Jakarta appears to have had a short life.

According to sources here, Indonesia’s foreign ministry would like the ongoing harassment and humiliation of Indians to stop. So far, it has resisted pressure from the rest of the Indonesian government to stop the entry of Indians into Indonesia altogether — even if they have valid visas.

But the hands of foreign ministry officials are tied beyond a point and the decision to designate India along with 19 other countries as “sensitive” has been taken “elsewhere, much higher up”.

Consequently, India, contrary to its recent claims as an emerging global power, finds itself in the category of Tonga, Tanzania, Cameroon, Iraq, Ethiopia, Cuba, Angola and Bangladesh, to name some of the countries designated by the government here as “sensitive”.

One explanation here is that Indonesia, buffeted by a rising tide of Islamic terror, is under pressure from Washington to get its act together and was asked by the Americans to keep an eye, among others, on Pakistani visitors.

The Indonesians concluded, sources here said, that designating Pakistanis as undesirable visitors would be politically incorrect unless the same treatment was meted out to Indians as well.

Apparently, for the same reasons of political correctness and as a concession to Muslim sensitivity, Israel was also included in the list of 20 “sensitive” countries for immigration purposes.

The humiliation for all Indian passport-holders apart, Jakarta’s action has been particularly hard on Indian businessmen in the Gulf, who do considerable trade with Indonesia, men who usually stop over here on business for no more than a day on their way to Japan, Singapore or another Asian country.

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