Administrative Lapse, Not Islamophobia Likely Reason for Amjad Ali Khan’s UK Visa Denial

Hindustani vocalist singer brothers Rajan and Sajan Mishra were also refused the same Tier 5 visa that Khan had applied for. The celebrated Indian artists were slated to perform at the annual Darbar Festival in London in September.


Ustad Amjad Ali Khan. Credit: Reuters

New Delhi: Coming on the heels of Bollywood actor Shah Rukh Khan being harassed by immigration authorities at a US airport, the news of UK denying a visa to New Delhi-based Sarod maestro Ustad Amjad Ali Khan has been doing the rounds in the media for the past three days.

The 70-year-old Padma Vibhushan awardee took to Twitter to express his “shock” in a series of tweets, even tagging the external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, the High Commission of India in London and the British High Commission in India. He lamented that it was “extremely sad for artistes who are spreading the message of love and peace.”

Speaking to the Times of India, Khan later said, “They [British High Commission] didn’t give any valid reason. I really feel that my visa has been rejected because my surname is Khan. It is an obvious case of Islamophobia.”

Such treatment of a celebrated artiste who has been accorded the Padma Vibhushan – the second-highest civilian award of the country – certainly raised a few eyebrows.

Swaraj reportedly contacted Khan and assured him that the government will “take it up” with the UK government. However, it turned out that Khan was not the only Indian classical stalwart slated to perform at the annual Darbar Festival in London who was denied a visa. Hindustani vocalist singer brothers and Padma Bhushan awardees Rajan and Sajan Mishra were also refused the same Tier 5 visa that Khan had applied for.

The details of the case seem to have debunked Khan’s argument of the visa being denied because of his faith, as it is likely a case of an administrative lapse on the part of the UK visa department that failed to make obvious the changes made in the rules for issuance of the Tier 5 visas – meant for international musicians – in the application form.

Sandeep Virdee, the artistic director of the Darbar Festival, that will be held in London from September 16-18, confirmed it to The Wire that it was “not just Khan sahab, but a couple of other musicians slated to perform at this year’s festival, including Rajan and Sajan Mishra, Carnatic vocalist Aruna Sairam and Hindustani vocalist Shubha Mudgal, [who] faced the problem of either rejection, delay or issuance of wrong visas.”

When contacted, Khan refused to comment on the issue.

In a telephonic conversation from London, Virdee said, “Darbar prides itself in bringing 20 of the best Hindustani and Carnatic classical musicians from India every year. It includes the well-travelled top names to those who are very good, but fairly unknown and have never travelled out of the country. The festival is considered the biggest showcase of Indian classical music outside of India. This year, we will have it at the Royal Festival Hall, a prestigious venue. Though [we] faced some problems with visas in 2010, we never faced it until this year.”

He further explained that, “While some artistes applied for the UK visa on their own, we applied the visa for some senior artistes, including the Mishra brothers and Khan sahab. The artistes who applied on their own filled the PPE [Permitted Paid Engagement] visa form, while we applied for the Tier 5 visas on behalf of the artistes. However, some of the Tier 5 visas have got rejected.”

Virdee, who has has been organising the festival in the memory of his father Bhai Gurmeet Singh Virdee at the well-known Southbank Centre by the Thames since 2005, said, “What happened was that the visa rules have been changed since last year and it was not made obvious to us, so we were caught out. Since the Tier 5 visa is issued to an international musician, it needed more papers from both the organisers and the artistes, which we didn’t submit, leading to the rejection. We have now reapplied and [are] waiting to hear from the UK High Commission.”

He also pointed out, “There is certainly some internal administrative problem there as one of the fairly unknown names, dhrupad singer Vishal Jain, was issued a Tier 5 visa under the category of international musicians, while the big names were denied.”

Though he declined to engage with Khan’s theory of his visa being rejected because of his religion, he did feel that, “the high commission should have known who these musicians were. Ideally, it should have a separate window to deal with musicians of international repute so that they don’t have to go through rejection.”

Both Mudgal and Sairam felt that, “It is time the issue is addressed at the policy level.”

“Many musicians have been facing a lot of difficulty in getting visas. Anyway, it is extremely difficult for a musician to prove what he/she does to the visa authorities of any country. [It is about] time the government gives some kind of accreditation to artistes or share a list of musicians, etc., with different countries so that they have some reference to fall back on,” Mudgal told The Wire.

The popular artist slated to perform at the festival on September 18 (a day after Khan, the Mishra brothers and Sairam), was issued a business visa by the UK, even though she applied for a PPE visa.

“There are three of us in our team. While me and my husband [Tabla player Aneesh Pradhan] applied for the visa in Delhi and were issued business visas, the third team member, Sudhir Nath, who applied for the visa in Mumbai, was granted a PPE visa. We found it strange, but were also left with a practical problem. Since three of us will be travelling together, what if it leads to a problem there? Issuance of a visa doesn’t ensure that you can enter the country, so we pointed it out to the visa application centre in Connaught Place and were told to reapply. No extra fee was charged to us and we both were issued PPE visas.”

Mudgal’s last visit to the UK was in 2008.

“I applied for a PPE visa. The mandatory 15-day wait is getting over tomorrow, am keeping my fingers crossed,” Sairam said from Chennai.

In the conversation with Sairam, she also said that she “always fears something will happen to my tanpura. I put it in a very hard case and hope for the best.”

Mudgal too reiterated the difficulties faced by Indian musicians carrying instruments at the airports and wanted the government to sort it out at the policy level. She particularly pointed to her husband’s experience while on his trip to Australia. “Musicians who play hand-made instruments face a lot of problems because instruments made of untreated leather, wood, etc. are not allowed by different countries such as Australia. What they do then is spray on the tabla a disinfectant which damages a sensitive instrument. The government should address the problems that Indian musicians especially face.”

Virdee added, “We have been booking our artistes in Jet Airways as it allows the maximum weight. The musicians typically travel with a lot of instruments. We have to understand it. However, the fear of the airline causing damage to an instrument remains.”

“If you are travelling from the UK, airlines give the option of booking something called a cello seat [that is] meant for instruments. If the ticket is for £ 600, you pay only half to book such a seat; you don’t pay the taxes for it. It helps the musicians book a ticket for an instrument [and] gives the musician the option of not checking it in. But those travelling from India don’t have this option. It is time India government demands it from the airlines for its musicians.”