Washington, Sept. 19: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and US President George W. Bush may consider themselves nuclear buddies, but their enthusiasm about the 123 Agreement does not extend to Indian nuclear scientists.
M.R. Srinivasan, a member of India’s Atomic Energy Commission, could not chair a scheduled meeting in Washington last week focussing on the nuclear deal because the American embassy in New Delhi could not issue him a visa in time to travel to the US.
Srinivasan’s visa problems were the result of continuing American sanctions against India for its 1998 nuclear tests.
They fly in the face of remarks by David Mulford, the US Ambassador to India, yesterday that he wants engagement between India and the US to move “from 123 to what I call 456” and metamorphose into a “comprehensive relationship”.
US Embassy spokeswoman Elizabeth Fitzsimmons said on telephone from New Delhi that she could not comment on individual visa cases because of US privacy laws.
“Section 222S of the Privacy Act overrides any deliberations on visa processing.” she told The Telegraph.
But other sources said on condition of anonymity that despite the nuclear deal, despite the new perceived closeness between Washington and New Delhi, visa applications from Indian nuclear scientists have to be referred to Washington for special clearance.
The episode involving Srinivasan has sent jitters through the Indian Embassy here because another nuclear scientist, R Chidambaram, the principal scientific adviser to the Prime Minister, is due here in less than 10 days.
Chidambaram was on the banned list of Indians for US visas for an extended period and was prevented from travelling to America for his direct role in the Pokhran tests in 1998.
When Srinvasan’s troubles became known here, there was a flurry of phone calls between the Indian embassy and the Prime Minister’s Office to make sure that there would be no embarrassment as Chidambaram packs his bags for Washington.
Srinivasan said he had applied for a US visa on his diplomatic passport on August 23 with a “note verbale” from the ministry of external affairs which usually accompanies applications for official travel.
Nearly three weeks later, on the day he was to board his flight to the US, he was told that clearance had not come from Washington, permitting the embassy to issue his visa.
Srinivasan had to postpone his flight twice until high-level government intervention resulted in his visa being issued.
Narrating his humiliation at the American embassy in New Delhi, Srinivasan said after arriving here: “I would like to promote Indo-US relations, but henceforth I will do so by remaining in India.”
He was persuaded in this instance to travel to the US by fellow members of the Aspen US-India Strategic Dialogue.
By the time he arrived at his hotel here, the session on the nuclear deal he was to chair as part of the Strategic Dialogue was well under way without Srinivasan.
He eventually ended up making a few concluding remarks at the meeting.
Srinivasan’s visa problems exercised a large audience of Indian and American corporate leaders at a lunch hosted by the US-India Business Council on the eve of the Aspen Dialogue.
Curiously, Doug Hartwick, the US Assistant Trade Representative, a key member of the Bush administration dealing with South Asia, publicly shared the concern expressed at the lunch when he admitted that visas continue to be a problem in the way of promoting business between India and America.
Richard Boucher, the US assistant secretary of state for South and Central Asia, told the US-India Business Alliance on Capitol Hill yesterday that American diplomatic missions in India had “processed” 600,000 visas so far this year.
It was not clear, however, from his statement how many of these had been cleared permitting Indians to travel to the US.