India's 'Necessary' Message to China on the Uighur is a Gamble With an Uncertain Payoff

If Isa is eventually refused entry or does not come to India for some reason, the message the Chinese side receives may well be that the Modi government lacks the will to follow through.

New Delhi: Even as the Modi government is being lauded for its ‘strategic’ boldness in giving a visa to a well-known Uighur activist, China watchers counsel a more cautious approach, noting that while Beijing may get the message, the move is unlikely to push it to accommodate India’s concerns on Jaish-e-Mohammed supremo Masood Azhar.

On March 31, China put a technical hold, yet again, on Azhar’s listing by the 1267 Al-Qaida and Taliban sanctions committee of the United Nations Security Council. Not only did India publicly criticise China for this, the NDA government decided to take up the matter at all recent bilateral meetings. The need for action against Azhar was raised by external affairs minister Sushma Swaraj, defence minister Manohar Parrikar and national security advisor Ajit Doval.

However, as part of a new tactic of putting pressure on China, an electronic visa was issued to Uighur democracy activist Dolkun Isa to allow him to attend a conference organised by a group of Chinese democracy supporters in Dharamshala. Once the news broke this week, China was quick to remind India that Dolkun Isa is a “terrorist in red notice of the Interpol and Chinese police”.

“I see it as necessary, possibly useful, but also setting us on a new course with China,” the former national security adviser, Shivshankar Menon, told The Wire when asked about his assessment of the Indian decision to grant Isa a visa. “We must play with the levers and cards we are dealt by fate and the Chinese.”

For now, however, the government itself is playing cautious. MEA spokesperson Vikas Swarup chose not to comment on the significance of the decision or even to confirm that Isa would be coming to India. “Look, we have seen media reports on this purported visit of Dolkun Isa to India. At the moment the Ministry of External Affairs is trying to ascertain the facts,” he said on Friday.

In the Indian system, sensitive visa requests are cleared by the Union home ministry but it is highly unlikely that the MEA would not have been in on the loop.

Sources say the government will come out with a more definitive stand on the issue by Monday.

‘I am concerned about my safety’

Speaking to The Wire from Berlin, where he lives, Dolkun Isa also gave a similar timeline, adding that he will take a call on his travels plan in the next two days. “I will make the decision on Monday, but I am still weighing my options,” he said. Isa is a German citizen.

Chairman of the World Uyghur Congress‘s executive committee, Isa said that his concerns stemmed from fears for his personal safety. “If I decide not to travel, it will be because of safety concerns. I have been detained in the past at the airport (South Korea in September 2009 for three days), and was also denied entry into the US in 2006 – this problem was solved in 2012, however, and I have since been able to enter the US for travel and work for the past 4 years,” he noted.

Asked if he had made contact with the Indian government for any guarantees against him being detained, the 49-year-old Uighur activist said, “I made contact with the Indian consulate in Berlin, but no assurances were made”.

Dolkun Isa. Credit: World Uyghur Congress/YouTube

Dolkun Isa. Credit: World Uyghur Congress/YouTube

He is also waiting to hold consultations with other Uighur leaders who are landing in Berlin from all over the world to attend a conference. “Some of them are coming today, some tomorrow. So, I will speak to them together on Sunday,” he added.

Isa said that he had applied online for an Indian visa on “April 3-4” and got the approval “within 24 hours”.

He is aware of the speculation in the media that his visit is linked to India’s disapproval of Chinese actions about Masood Azhar. “I know, I feel very uncomfortable that I am being linked with a person like him, as that is what China tries to blame us for… My struggle is completely non-violent. I am nothing like him,” he said.

Even if Isa may finally decide not to travel to India, four of his colleagues from the World Uyghur Congress who have also received online visas plan on making the trip. “They will certainly go. My case is different,” he added.

Mystery of the red corner notice

While both the World Uyghur Congress and the  Chinese government claim that there is indeed a red corner notice, the database on the Interpol website doesn’t list Dolkun Isa in the 160 notices issued by China.

Isa also agreed that his name was not available on Interpol’s public database. “You are right, you can’t find my name on the Interpol website. I think there are different list of Interpol, some lists which are not published openly,” he added.

In fact, his name may have been removed from Interpol’s online database only recently. A 2011 report of the International Consortium for Investigative Journalists had listed Dolkun Isa as one of the victims of the misuse of Interpol’s red-corner  notices by countries to target political dissenters.

Incidentally, India issues a separate visa with stringent rules for foreigners to attend conferences, which is not processed online and can only be only issued by the relevant Indian diplomatic outpost. Isa confirmed that he has only got approval for a tourist visa.

Even if Isa travels to India, there will be grounds to stop his trip to Dharamshala on the grounds that he has the wrong type of visa, official sources here said.

The conference he has been invited for is organised by Initiatives for China, a US-based organisation led by a former dissident, Yang Jianli. And though Tibetans are also part of the event, the theme of the event is democracy promotion – a safe subject, from New Delhi’s perspective – rather than separatism, a card India has been reluctant to play.

Indian officials claim that giving approval for Dolkun Isa’s visa is a strong enough “message” to China rather than actually allowing him to land on Indian territory.

However, If Isa is refused entry or does not come to India for some reason, the “message” the Chinese side receives may well be the opposite. “Of course [they would]”, Shivshankar Menon said when asked by The Wire whether the Chinese would conclude that India lacks the capacity or willingness to use the cards it has.

‘Futile course’

According to the director of the Institute of Chinese Studies, Alka Acharya, even if Isa comes, it would be unrealistic to expect China to eventually give up its ‘informal veto’ on Masood Azhar. “At this current juncture, it is futile to expect China to change its course. China does not react to such pressures,” she told The Wire.

From China’s perspective, Pakistan is not just a close ‘all weather’ ally of China, but is also key to stop the spread of jihadi networks especially of the East Turkestan Islamic Movement from Af-Pak tribal regions to restive Xinjiang.

Acharya felt that the present ‘tactic’ felt like a “knee jerk reaction”. “I don’t know if it has been really thought through. I am not sure if this is suggestion has come from the MEA or from some other quarter,” she said.

The well-known China scholar, Manorajan Mohanty, however, felt that this move was in line with the policies of the NDA government. “At the swearing-in ceremony for Narendra Modi, the Tibetan ‘government-in-exile’s’ Lobsang Sangey was invited. So, I am not really surprised with the issuance of the visa as it seems to be line with the government’s China policy,” said Mohanty, who has authored several publications on China.

M V Rappai, a former analyst at the Research and Analysis Wing and honorary fellow at the ICS, has a fundamental disagreement with the government going the United Nations route to target Masood Azhar and expend valuable diplomatic capital in this pursuit. “I don’t think that it is the right way. If we consider him to be so important, there were other routes to neutralise his role. A UNSC listing is not very helpful,” he said.

Further, he felt that linking Azhar to the Uighur case could be dangerous. “We cannot hold a brief for Uighur dissidents. That could be dangerous. Suppose any country start doing something in the north-east,” said Rappai.

“I see it as necessary, possibly useful, but also setting us on a new course with China. We must play with the levers and cards we are dealt by fate and the Chinese.”
– Shivshankar Menon, former Indian NSA

This was also a concern raised by Mohanty, who said that he won’t be surprised to see Kashmiri leaders surfacing at a conference in a Chinese city.

However, he was confident that the current flap would not impact the higher arc of the India-China relationship. “Even after the developments at the UN, the NSA made the trip to Beijing. After the border talks, both sides have said that the momentum must be maintained and that they would like to continue with peace and stability on the frontier. Therefore, I don’t think these developments will interrupt the overall course of Sino-indian relations,” he said.

For P. Stobdan, former Indian ambassador to Kazakhstan and a scholar on China’s Xinjiang region, the approval for Dolkun Isa’s visa “opens a new chapter”. “It is extremely significant. We have not done anything like this since 1954,” he said.

But Stobdan doubted if the Indian government will be able to sustain this policy of needling China. “This is about a democracy against one-party rule. I think it will die down within 10 days,” he added.

In 2009, Rebia Kadeer, the Uighur businesswoman and activist, had applied for a visa at the Indian embassy in Germany, but was rejected.

Historic ties

Stobdan remembers that when Jamia Milia Islamia had tried to open a Uighur language centre, it never took off. “This happened around 10-12 years ago. But, the plan was never implemented. May be the Chinese embassy objected,” he said.

An Uighur man in Kashgar. Credit: Fiona/Flickr CC 2.0

An Uighur man in Kashgar. Credit: Fiona/Flickr CC 2.0

Stobdan claims that India has far older links with Xinjiang, than even with Tibet. “Our relationship is much deeper, starting from first century BC, compared to known historical ties with Tibet which date back to 7-8th century AD,” he said.

He noted that senior officials of the short-lived independent states in Xinjiang in the early 20th centry had fled to India and then moved to Germany. Uighur leaders like Erkin Alpetkin, whose prominent family fled to Srinagar, India after the communists took over China, continue to visit India. “I have met him here several times. Of course, he comes here due to his connection with the Dalai Lama,” said Stobdan

Dolkun Isa noted that Erik Alpetkin’s father, Isa Yusuf Alpetkin, who had been one of the top three ranking leaders of the “First East Turkestan Republic” was well-acquainted with both Mahatma Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru.

Note: This article has been edited to incorporate the responses of Shivshankar Menon.