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Preachy and too open, Canada courts visa row
Singh

Washington, May 27: Canada’s visa denial to Indians associated with its security framework is the result of Ottawa’s inability to balance its tedious habit of preaching to others with its commendable openness in every area of governance.

The controversy has cast a shadow over Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s planned visit to Toronto next month.

Canada is nearly unique among countries big and small, developed and developing, in revealing to visa applicants the reason for denying them permission to enter its territory.

It is this rare openness in the Canadian visa process which has now left that country’s high commission in New Delhi and its officials in Ottawa preparing for the Prime Minister’s visit with egg on their faces.

If retired Border Security Force (BSF) constable Fateh Singh Pander whose visa denial sparked the ongoing controversy or former Director General of Military Operations, Lt Gen. (retd) A.S. Bahia, who was also barred from entering Canada, had similarly applied for a US visa and were found to be undesirable aliens, they would never have known the exact reason for being denied a US visa.

Like the US, most countries never reveal the reasons for visa denial, much less communicate those reasons to applicants in writing as Canada does. This is because every country, including India, treasures the right to admit aliens as a sovereign right which is sacrosanct.

The US routinely denies visas to Indians or delays the process merely because they happen to be Muslims although their religion is never cited as the reason for visa denials.

In the latest such incident, which surprisingly did not create a furore as in the current Canadian episode, three Indian journalists who were part of the media delegation travelling to the US on the Prime Minister’s special plane to cover the Group of Twenty summit in Pittsburgh last September were not given visas by the US embassy in New Delhi. No reason was given for the embassy’s decision.

The three applicants, all respected journalists with impeccable credentials and security clearance required to travel with the Prime Minister, were Muslims.

The potentially ugly episode was resolved at the eleventh hour only after the ministry of external affairs interceded with the embassy, warning it of unspecified consequences connected with Singh’s visit.

In another incident, which did create a controversy, a respected Indian scientist, Goverdhan Mehta, who was then president of the Paris-based International Council for Science, was denied a US visa in February 2006 to attend an international scientific conference at the University of Florida in Gainesville.

Although the Americans steadfastly refused to give any reason on the record for refusing entry to Mehta, a former of director of the prestigious Indian Institute of Science in Bangalore, US consular officials who interviewed him in Chennai privately told him that his expertise in chemistry was deemed a threat to US security.

The US reversed its decision after the controversy threatened to overshadow the state visit of President George W. Bush to India that was to take place a few weeks later. The US embassy in New Delhi issued a highly unusual statement of regret, but only because of its desire to bury the hatchet before Bush landed in India.

Unlike most countries, Canada asks applicants from all over the world even for visas for short visits whether they have been in military, militia or civil defence units and whether they have served in an intelligence organisation or police force.

In Canadian application forms, this question, obviously a possible reason for being considered an undesirable alien, ranks only slightly lower as a potential disadvantage to having contracted tuberculosis or having been in close contact with someone ailing from tuberculosis of the lung.

Such questions are similar to those previously in US visa application forms demanding to know if those who want to visit America have ever been members of a communist party.

The late Bengal chief minister Jyoti Basu refused throughout his life to apply for a US visa or visit America because he considered it humiliating to have to answer that question, posed as if it was a crime to be a communist.

Canada has a long history of strong human rights advocacy but the questions about military service and allied matters are a relatively new additions to the visa forms after the tragic massacres by government supported militias in places like Rwanda, which shook the world's conscience.

Decades of concessions to human rights, non-proliferation and peace activists within their country and internationally have made Canadians preachy, straining relations with countries like India from time to time.

Canada also has very liberal asylum rules, which have made it possible for suspects in political murders and human rights violations to not only get into the country but also gain permanent residence.

In recent years, however, there is an effort to prevent those who have misused Canada’s liberal traditions, such as Khalistanis and Tamil Tigers from gaining entry.

The detailed scrutiny of a broad category of applicants, including those associated with paramilitary forces as in the case of Indians who have been denied visas, is the result of these developments.

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