Was Former Swiss Diplomat Kurt Vogele Blacklisted and Deported for His Links to an NGO?

Vogele's unceremonious deportation comes just days after India denied visas to a team of Australian journalists for having written a story on Gautam Adani.

Credit: Navsarjan Trust/Facebook

New Delhi: Ignoring his nearly five-decade-long association with India, both as a diplomat and as a senior official of the Swiss Development Cooperation (SDC), which is part of Switzerland’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the government of India unceremoniously deported 75-year-old Kurt Vogele when he landed in Ahmedabad on January 22.

The decision to deport him is seen to be linked to the SDC’s funding of the Navsarjan Trust, which has been championing the cause of the Dalits in Gujarat and elsewhere. Another colleague of Vogele, Josef Imfeld, who was also at the Swiss Embassy in Delhi from 2000 to 2005 and who was mainly in charge of regional programmes of SDC, was also denied an entry visa for India.

In a detailed letter dated January 29, 2018, addressed to Sibi George, the Indian Ambassador in Switzerland, Vogele wrote that he had “an awfully bad experience” as his “visa, which I had obtained by end of December 2017 in Berne, was rejected by the immigration officials”.

Stating that no specific reason was given for denial of entry, he wrote: “I was just told that I had no right to enter India, that I was blacklisted and that I had to return to Switzerland immediately.”

Vogele said he found this experience “humiliating” and “a result of an arbitrary decision, not worthy of a country I have learned to respect and appreciate”. He had last visited India in January 2017 on an invitation of the Malabar Union in Kerala.

Vogele said he insisted that he had a valid visa and his requests that he be informed of the reasons for his deportation were all “totally ignored”. Nor was he allowed to phone his friends who were waiting for him at the airport.

Vogele was visiting India on an invitation from Gagan Sethi, the founder of Janvikas and several other organisations working in areas of human and institutional development, access to legal justice, women empowerment, conflict management, and minority and Dalit rights. Sethi, it is learnt, had also gone to receive Vogele and the latter had urged the immigration authorities to give him an opportunity to speak to him.

In his letter, Vogele said that his arguments, “especially my asking for the reasons for this decision were not considered at all”. He added how his “passport also was not given back” to him, and was returned only after he landed in Geneva. The senior diplomat has urged the Indian ambassador in Switzerland to let him and Imfeld know “the reasons for such unilateral behaviour by a country I cherish for its democratic institutions”.

Paying the price for criticism?

The incident comes close on the heels of the recent denial of visas by the Narendra Modi government to a team of the Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and also to a senior and well-respected Australian journalist, Phillip Adams, who hosts the radio show Late Night Live and wanted to visit India to do a series of stories.

Just six days ago, in a piece for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Amruta Slee wrote about how she and her team were denied a visa because of a story.

“For months colleagues and I have been working on a series of programmes about India since independence for Radio National. We received a grant to travel to the subcontinent and interview the country’s best and brightest: historians, economists, investigative journalists, satirists, environmentalists, academics, architects and student leaders.

We were advised to apply for journalist visas back in December, well ahead of our planned flight in February. We waited. And waited.

Then finally, the correspondent wrote, ‘with days to go, a highly placed government source admitted there was a problem: It’s about the Adani story‘.”

On what probably led to the denial of visa, the writer noted:

“In October last year, reporter Stephen Long and the Four Corners team dug into the dealings of the company behind the controversial Adani coal mine and found a history of environmental and corporate malfeasance. It was a hard-hitting piece but still it seemed incredible that it could affect our visit.”

Senior Supreme Court advocate Prashant Bhushan tweeted that the deportation of the Swiss diplomat, coming quick on the heels of denial of visas to the Australian Broadcasting Corporation journalists, showed how India was “being made a banana republic”.

Historian Ramachandra Guha described these developments as “truly disturbing” in a recent article.

A studied silence

In the case of Vogele, despite his writing a detailed complaint to Sibi George, the authorities have maintained a studied silence on the issue.

Vogele lived in India for 13 years and has numerous friends here. He also spoke of how India has “become a kind of a second home country” for him. In his letter, he wrote about his work with the SDC, which was supported by Switzerland’s government. Referring to his links with India “since the beginning of 1969”, he said “this explains why the refusal from being allowed to enter into India on January 22 was such a shock for me”.

Though Vogele’s letter does not make any mention of SDC’s work with Navsarjan Trust being a reason behind the denial of entry, the BJP government in Gujarat had, in late 2016, made it known that it would be proceeding against the trust for alleged misuse of funds under the Foreign Contributions Regulation Act (FCRA). It had been then stated that SDC had provided Rs 30 crore funding to the trust for payment to field workers but the sum was not used for the intended purpose.

Talking to The Wire, Sethi said the grant to Navsarjan Trust was not Rs 30 crore. “I think it was about a million swiss franc (about Rs 6.81 crore) over five-six years. But in any case, Vogele was not coming to meet anyone in Navsarjan even though its founder, Martin Macwan, is a good friend of his. He was coming to meet many other friends. He comes every year to do pro bono work and pays for his own fare. During the visits, he shares his perspective on development etc with the NGOs he has worked in the past. His basic strength is compassionate communication.”

Talking of how Vogele had lent major assistance during the Bhuj earthquake of 2001, Sethi said, “We are absolutely shocked at the way he has been treated. Even if it is linked to Navsarjan, what has that got to do with him? Moreover, he had a valid visa with him and yet he was not told anything.”

He also quipped that it is ironical that this incident happened at just about the same time as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Davos in Switzerland.

Officials from the Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) – the nodal Union home ministry department that supervises immigration matters at all Indian airports – told The Wire that all decisions to deny entry to foreigners emanate from New Delhi and that individual immigration officers are simply not in a position to provide any rationale or explanation to someone whose name is put on to a blacklist.

In response to a query about the incident from The Wire, the media officer at the Embassy of Switzerland in New Delhi said, “The Embassy is in knowledge of the incident. However, we cannot comment on individual cases.”

Meanwhile, the Union Home Ministry has sought a report from immigration. A correspondent covering the beat tweeted: “Home ministry seeks report from immigration authorities over recent deportation of Swiss ex-diplomat Kurt Vogele soon after he landed in Ahmedabad.”