External Affairs

Sushma Swaraj’s Medical Visa Conditions for Pakistanis Set Unhealthy Precedent

I get the feeling Swaraj is more concerned about looking tough in the eyes of her countrymen than acting sagaciously in the interests of her country.

External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and Osama Ali. Credit: Reuters/Twitter

External affairs minister Sushma Swaraj and Osama Ali. Credit: Reuters/Twitter

I can understand Sushma Swaraj’s pique but she’s taking out her anger on the people of Pakistan rather than the government and that’s not just an avoidable mistake; it could also prove to be a short-sighted strategic error. Indeed the solitary exception she’s recently made, seems to prove this point.

Understandably annoyed at Pakistan’s handling of Kulbhushan Jadhav’s case and affronted by her Pakistani counterpart Sartaj Aziz’s discourtesy in not replying to her personal letter requesting a visa for Jadhav’s mother, Swaraj decided that visas for Pakistanis seeking medical treatment in India will only be granted if Aziz writes to personally recommend the case.

Not only does this smack of revenge but it’s also a hasty and emotional decision rather than a carefully calculated one. And quite paradoxically, it gives Aziz quazi veto powers to decide who comes to India for treatment and who does not.

The problems with this are aplenty. First of all, Swaraj knows it’s unlikely that Aziz will issue the sort of letter of recommendation she requires. If the situation were to be reversed, I doubt if she would an issue such a letter either. It would be tantamount to giving in to an unjustified demand from the other side.

Consequently, Pakistanis who applied for medical visas have tried to circumvent this requirement with a letter from the secretary in charge of the South Asia desk in the Pakistani foreign ministry but that hasn’t worked. In the first instance, this outcome is cruel because it denies people with grave medical conditions the treatment they urgently need. This, presumably, means Swaraj is condemning them to a steady deterioration in health and, perhaps, even death. And would you not feel she’s doing this knowingly and, even, deliberately? However, this alleged heartlessness also makes for a strategic blunder. Permitting, indeed encouraging, Pakistanis to seek medical treatment in India would create goodwill, which, in turn, could foster a popular mood that looks favourably upon India and, thus possibly, influences the attitude of both the civilian government and the military establishment. Conversely, denying treatment to those badly in need might have the opposite ripple effect. Is this really what Swaraj intends? Is this how she believes she’s furthering the prime minister’s repeated claim that he wants the best possible relations with Pakistan?

Narendra Modi told The Economist: “I keep trying to find new pathways, new avenues, to reach out to Pakistan.” Swaraj seems to be doing almost the opposite. Now to the solitary exception. After the Indian Express, on its front-page, published the touching story of 24-year-old Osama Ali, who’s request for an Indian visa for treatment of his liver tumour was rejected because he didn’t have a supporting recommendation from Aziz, Swaraj granted him one on the grounds that he is a resident of Rawalkot in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (PoK). He’s got a special waiver because he is a Kashmiri. Does Swaraj really believe this generosity will cement the residents of PoK to India whilst dividing them from the rest of Pakistan? Yet that has to be her hope or motivation. But would it not be wiser and more efficacious to grant visas to all Pakistanis who seek treatment in India? Surely that is more likely to influence their hesitant government and their belligerent army? An attempt to single out and favour Kashmiris can only put their backs up. Finally, let’s not ignore the economic and medical benefits that accrue from an increased number of Pakistanis seeking medical treatment in India. Also establishing our country as a medical hub in South Asia would enhance our relationship with our neighbours as well as our standing both regionally and internationally. Has Swaraj thought of that? And if she has, why has she brushed it aside?

I get the feeling Swaraj is more concerned about looking tough in the eyes of her countrymen than acting sagaciously in the interests of her country. In this instance, she needs to prove I’m wrong.

This article originally appeared in The Tribune.

The article has been edited to meet style guidelines.