Govt split on visa relief for Bangla

The foreign office has proposed radical steps to revamp India's visa regime for Bangladeshi visitors, including electronic tourist visas for frequent travellers and simpler procedures for Mukti Joddhas, freedom fighters who battled Pakistan in 1971.

By Charu Sudan Kasturi
  • Published 5.04.16

New Delhi, April 4: The foreign office has proposed radical steps to revamp India's visa regime for Bangladeshi visitors, including electronic tourist visas for frequent travellers and simpler procedures for Mukti Joddhas, freedom fighters who battled Pakistan in 1971.

But the home ministry has raised concerns about these proposals despite Bangladesh emerging as the brightest element of the Prime Minister's neighbourhood policy, senior officials have said.

Failing to implement measures that could build on goodwill between India and Bangladesh, unparalleled since the 1970s, may hurt New Delhi's chance to expand government-to-government bonhomie to people across the border, the officials warned.

It could also undermine the Prime Minister's emphasis on greater connectivity, ease of travel and economic integration across South Asia at a time India is also seeking transit rights through Bangladesh, veterans and experts said.

Bangladesh is now the biggest source of foreign tourists to India - over nine lakh came in the first 10 months of 2015, more than from the US, UK and other nations.

"If we're serious about increasing connectivity and integrating South Asian economies, then it's about time we made it easier for people from Bangladesh to travel to India," Pinak Ranjan Chakravarty, former Indian high commissioner to Bangladesh, told The Telegraph. "Quite frankly, trouble-makers and terrorists don't come with visas in any case."

The proposal the foreign office is keenest on involves adding Bangladesh to a list of 147 countries India currently offers electronic tourist visas - popularly known as eTVs. The facility, which allows potential visitors to apply and obtain an eTV online and then get a visa on arrival after landing in India, saves travellers the hassle of visiting the Indian embassy or high commission in their country.

But while India offers the facility to tiny islands like Niue in the Pacific Ocean and St Vincent and the Grenadines in the Caribbean, it demands that visitors from Bangladesh queue up at the Indian high commission or consulates.

The total population of the island of Niue - 1,100 - is a third of the number of Bangladeshi tourists who visit India each day on average. India also does not extend this facility to Pakistan and the Maldives, but visitors from these nations are a fraction of the number from Bangladesh.

To take into account home ministry concerns that potential terrorists may sneak into the country using the eTV, the foreign office is proposing restricting the facility to regular visitors -those who have been vetted by security agencies in the past.

Another proposal pitched by the ministry of external affairs involves simplified procedures for visas to Mukti Joddhas - Bangladeshi veterans of the 1971 war for the country's independence.

Most Mukti Joddhas are today senior citizens, and India's support to the Bangladesh liberation war means they remain warm towards New Delhi - factors that should allow the government to ease the visa process for them, the ministry has argued.

The foreign ministry has also sought simpler visa procedures for Bangladeshi visitors over 65 or under 15, officials said, again arguing that they pose little threat to India.

Relaxing visa norms for frequent travellers, liberation war veterans, the elderly and the young would send a signal that India no longer instinctively distrusts vast sections of Bangladesh's population, the officials said.

Equally though, it would help India's high commission in Bangladesh, currently overburdened with visa applications that far outnumber the mission's ability to process them swiftly. Many of these are "repeat" applications - frequent visitors who need to keep applying because India does not issue long-term visas to Bangladeshi citizens.

The time is perfect for the move, diplomats argued, because of the current warmth in ties and Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's own commitment to countering terrorism.

The timing would also be right, they pointed out, because of growing Indian investments in Bangladesh. Easier visas for Bangladeshis would represent sign of reciprocity in goodwill, at a time Anil Ambani, Gautam Adani and other major Indian industrialists are looking to invest in Bangladesh. India is also preparing to set up two special economic zones in Bangladesh.

But the home ministry has articulated concerns over continuing links between Pakistan's intelligence agencies and radical Islamist groups in Bangladesh. Any loosening of visa restrictions could allow members of these groups to slip in, the ministry has indicated to the foreign office.

These concerns can, however, be addressed even with a relaxed visa regime, through stricter scrutiny at airports, officials argued. Visitors from any country holding eTVs still need to get visas on arrival at the Indian airport where they land. Then, they again are vetted at immigration check points.

"Giving someone a visa is not a guarantee that they will be allowed entry," Chakravarty said. "If our scrutiny systems are good, we should be able to check and send back any dubious person from the airport too."