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Shah Rukh question hinges on ‘J’ visa

Washington, April 13: India’s high-level intervention over the delay in clearing Shah Rukh Khan’s entry into the US has taken place before New Delhi verified if the actor had arrived for his talk at Yale on the right visa.

If it emerges that the actor arrived at New York’s White Plains airport on the wrong visa, New Delhi runs the risk of being accused of jumping the gun.

US homeland security department officials are unwilling to reveal what type of visa Khan used in his attempt yesterday to enter the US citing privacy rules which prohibit discussing individual immigration cases.

But it is clear from their conversations on background that US authorities would have been well within their rights to turn away the actor and refuse him entry into America altogether.

Instead, they questioned him for two hours and then let him in after clarifications, although the delay disrupted Khan’s entire schedule at Yale, where his otherwise endearing conversation with students, academics and South Asia experts came to be dominated by the airport flap.

External affairs minister S.M. Krishna was scathing in criticism of US authorities in the middle of his visit to Moscow and Krishna’s ministerial colleague Rajiv Shukla, a friend of the actor, appears to have swung into action to extricate Khan from the airport.

Since the purpose of his current visit to the US was to speak at Yale, Khan should have secured a “J” visa before leaving India. This category of visa is meant for academic exchange visitors. When Khan was similarly detained at a US airport in 2009, he should have arrived with an “” visa meant for artists invited to perform in America.

It is understood from multiple sources that Khan normally travels to America on a “B-1/B-2” visa which is used by most Indians arriving at US airports. This type of visa allows them to travel for pleasure, tourism, temporary business or medical treatment.

US embassies are more liberal in issuing “B-1/B-2” visas than other categories and they are popular among Indians because such visas are, more often than not, issued for a 10-year period. That eliminates the need for applicants to go through the cumbersome and expensive exercise of repeatedly applying for US visas.

From the point of view of US consular staff, the extended validity of “B-1/B-2” visas, the most popular category, relieves their workload and saves administrative expenses for the state department, a major factor in issuing such visas to Indian applicants for a decade each time.

Homeland security department officials said that even when artists like Khan arrive in the US for cultural events or for academic programmes, the letter of the law requires that they obtain the “appropriate” visas for such travel. They said such additional visas can be obtained without cancelling the “B-1/B-2” visas which can be used for tourism on subsequent occasions.

Explaining the procedure in considerable detail, one official pointed out that journalists, such as this reporter, were told to get “I” category media visas while travelling with Indian Prime Ministers to the US even when they had valid “B-1/B-2” visas.

Although Indian ministers were quick to pander to popular sentiment and criticise the US government’s treatment of Khan, it is clear that Indian diplomats here are not getting into any tizzy on this issue, notwithstanding ministerial reaction back home which may suggest otherwise.

Fully aware that there are several aspects to the Khan episode and conscious of the possibility that immigration authorities in White Plains may have a water-tight case, Indian officials here are proceeding with caution.

As a first step, they have asked Khan to send them copies of his passport and visa — or visas — along with details of his invitation and other relevant material. Only after examining the legality of such material will they confront the homeland security department.

Meanwhile, to satisfy political bosses back home, they may give an appearance of acting on ministerial ire.

Indian diplomats also must take into account another factor: Khan’s name appears to have raised the red flag when it was punched into the homeland security department’s computer.

After September 11, no immigration official will ignore such an alert even if George Washington himself had arrived at the immigration counter instead of Khan. It would be futile for Indian diplomats to argue that the Indian actor should be waved past them because of name recognition when his name alerts them of potential danger, howsoever false.

Islamophobia is a hard fact of contemporary American life and no amount of Indian protests over Khan or former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam is going to change that.

In private, one Indian diplomat pointed out that one of the most potent weapons against Barack Hussein Obama in the 2008 presidential campaign was his middle name and the false rumour-mongering that the President was a closet Muslim.

One US diplomat who served in India during the years when Indian Airlines had a monopoly of Indian domestic skies compared American apologies, such as the one made over the furore in India over the White Plains incident, to the state-run airline’s apology over the public address system each time its delayed flights finally took off.

“They used to apologise, but we could be certain that the return flight and most subsequent flights would also be delayed. And every time there would be an apology for the inconvenience caused by the delay,” the diplomat said.

In a sense, the external affairs minister said as much. “This has become a habit of detention and then apology…. We need an assurance that this won’t happen again,” Krishna said.

Those who met the actor yesterday said he was furious over his detention although he joked about it during his address at Yale.

One homeland security department official said immigration agents often use their discretion and admit academic exchange visitors who arrive without the mandatory “J” visas, especially if they are in the US on a short visit as in Khan’s case, although they are subjected to detailed questioning.

Such discretion is used also when the visitor is not earning any study credit or getting a degree or a certificate for academic activity. This is partly because technically, a visitor using a “J” visa is required to have a “two-year home-country physical presence” after each visit. That could be interpreted to mean that the “J” visa holder must stay in his home country for two subsequent years and may not be allowed re-entry into the US during that period, a requirement that Americans are not keen to impose on people like Khan.

Many performers like him are reluctant to apply for the mandatory “” visa because the criteria for getting that visa have become increasingly rigorous in recent years. The New York Times reported two days ago that there had been a 25 per cent decline in people arriving on “” visas between 2006 and 2010 because of new restrictions.

When actors like Khan are allowed in for professional appearances in the US, assuming they arrive without the required visa, immigration officials are actually bending their own rules and doing the visitors a favour instead of simply sending them back.