China Plays Kashmir Card, India Protests

1 October 2009

New Delhi: After weeks of claiming that all's well between them, India and China seem to have resumed their cat-and-mouse game. The Manmohan Singh government on Thursday announced that it has posted a strong protest with Beijing over the kind of visas the latter issued recently to Kashmiri visitors to China. The visas were on a separate piece of paper and were stapled to the passports of the visitors, mostly students from Kashmir, instead of being stamped on their documents as visas usually are. Experts here see this as a provocative move as it suggests that China is raising questions about the status of Jammu and Kashmir, which Pakistan claims as its territory. 'By implication, China would seem to be helping Pakistan on this critical question,' said Alka Acharya, professor of Chinese studies at Jawaharlal Nehru University. India has protested strongly to the Chinese, both here in New Delhi and through its embassy in Beijing. 'It is our considered view that there should be no discrimination against visa applicants of Indian nationality on grounds of domicile or ethnicity,' said a statement from the ministry of external affairs. A ministry of external affairs (MEA) official who spoke on the condition of anonymity said that this is a new tactic by the Chinese that came to light a couple of weeks ago when immigration authorities alerted the home ministry. The foreign office immediately lodged a complaint with Beijing but did not publicise it. When more Kashmiri students showed up at Delhi airport with similar visas, the government decided to take up the matter more strongly and make a public issue of it. The deliberate decision to raise the ante on the visa issue marks the end of a period of conciliation during which the Manmohan Singh government spared no effort to lower tensions by downplaying reports of Chinese incursions into Indian territory. But the MEA official who spoke to DNA, was reluctant to say whether this would escalate into a war of words. 'Let us wait and see how the Chinese respond,' he said. Strategic affairs analyst Brahma Chellany was surprised by the government move. He felt that the visa issue was a provocation but not as major as the continuing incursions by Chinese soldiers, which he claimed are happening at the rate of almost one per day. 'We should have been more vocal on the incursions but the government chose to tame the media. I find it odd that it has developed spine on something that is not as grave,' he said. Chellany and Acharya agreed that the visa issue was yet another attempt by China to keep India under pressure for a variety of strategic reasons. 'China is opening up pressure points on various fronts to put India on the defensive,' said Chellany. Acharya felt the Chinese strategy was aimed at pushing India into a corner so that it doesn't ratchet up other issues, like the long-standing border dispute or Tibet. The forthcoming visit of the Dalai Lama to Tawang in Arunachal Pradesh, to which China has staked claim, is a bone of contention and Beijing has asked New Delhi to have it called off. Students from Kashmir have been flocking to China in recent years, especially for medical studies. China has always stamped the visa on their passports till recently. The first such case was noticed when a Kashmiri student going to China for PhD studies presented his documents to the immigration authorities at Delhi airport. The visa was stapled to the passport and the immigration officer got suspicious thinking it was a fake visa. He refused permission to the student to leave the country and alerted the home ministry. The student returned a few days later with a letter from the Chinese embassy stating that the visa was in order. Although the immigration officer cleared him, the student was later offloaded from the plane. Over the next few days, more students from Kashmir presented their passports at the immigration desk of Delhi airport. All of them had similar visas, setting off alarm bells in the establishment here. For the students, it's been a heartbreaking experience because with the escalation of the visa row, they are now stuck in India with no hope of going to China for further studies. Ishfaq-ul-Hassan adds from Srinagar: Scores of students and businessman have been left in the lurch by the visa row between India and China. Many businessmen had to cancel bookings and return as they were not allowed to board flights by immigration authorities at New Delhi airport. 'I deal with paints and was going on a business trip. I was not allowed by the immigration authorities at Delhi as they objected to the stapled visa by the Chinese embassy. We told them that it was not our fault and it is being done for more than 10 years,' said Bilal Ahmad Beig, a businessman from Kashmir. Beig had to board a China Southern Airlines flight on September 9 but had to cancel it over the visa row. 'We booked another flight to Hong Kong on September 10 but the immigration authorities did not allow us. We tried to convince them that any Indian can go to Hong Kong if he has a valid passport. But it did not work and we had to cancel our trip and return,' he said. Another businessman said they have suffered huge losses due to the visa row. The students are the worst hit as they are unable to join classes. 'We were told that we will be allowed only after the visa is corrected. We did not protest fearing our careers,' said a student.