Dolkun Isa, a senior leader of the World Uyghur Congress who left China in 1997 and is now, according to media reports, a German national, was given an electronic visa on April 16 to visit India to participate in a conference in Dharamshala to be held a few days from now. China protested against India’s decision, calling Dolkun a terrorist, and said that an Interpol red corner notice had been issued against him and that all countries were obliged to bring him to justice.
Following the protest, the Indian government decided to cancel Dolkun’s visa. Dolkun has since issued a statement expressing disappointment with the decision, and has clarified that he and his organisation are dedicated to non-violent means in their struggle for Uighur rights and freedom.
The government flip-flop has serious implications, especially vis-à-vis its China policy. Hence, an examination of the different aspects of this episode is warranted.
Who are the Uighurs?
The Uighurs are an ethnic Muslim group, mainly living in China’s Xinjiang province and the adjoining areas. They speak a Turkish dialect and are culturally completely different from the majority Han Chinese people. Although Uighurs were in a majority in their traditional areas, including Xinjiang, over the decades, as part of deliberate policy, the Chinese government has settled the Han people in their areas, reducing the Uighurs to a minority.
As a result, many have taken to violence, with some Chinese commentators assess that Uighur extremism is the single most serious internal security challenge for the country.
The initial government decision to give Dolkun a visa was a significant departure from its actions in the past; in 2009 Rabia Qadeer a US-based Uighur leader was denied a visa by the UPA government.
India’s decision to grant Dolkun a visa came after China vetoed India’s bid at the UN to declare Jaish-e-Mohammad head Masood Azhar a terrorist. There is no doubt that Azhar is a terrorist. However, China claimed that it had opposed the move because India did not fulfil technical requirements. This is an absurd reason. China has actually done so at Pakistan’s behest.
China is Pakistan’s “all weather friend”. The foundations of the China-Pakistan relationship are the negative attitude that both countries have for India. It is clear that China decided to overlook India’s concerns regarding Azhar especially soon after the Pathankot airbase attack carried out by his terrorist organisation.
India made its unhappiness with China issue well known. The matter was taken up at very high political levels by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar during his visit to China, Foreign Minister Sushma Swaraj with her Chinese counterpart during a bilateral meeting recently in Moscow on the sidelines of the Russia-India-China Foreign Ministers meeting and by National Security Advisor Ajit Doval during his visit to China last week. However, there is no indication from the Chinese side that they are willing to show sensitivity to Indian concerns on a critical issue, such as terrorism.
Revoking visa an error
It is part of diplomacy to back words with action. Naturally the action has to be targeted and appropriate, as it is meant to convey a signal and not provoke. Thus, it should be examined if the decision to give Dolkun a visa met these requirements.
The answer is, it clearly did. Firstly, it showed that if China would continue to obstruct action against someone India considered a terrorist India would reciprocate by not taking action against someone China considered involved in terrorism.
Secondly, as for the red corner notice, India could have sent Dolkun back to Germany as he is a German citizen and it is that country’s responsibility to take action on a notice against their own.
Additionally, India could have clarified that it had no intention of downgrading ties with China and would proceed with President Pranab Mukerjee’s scheduled visit to China next month.
Finally, both countries have many common interests, especially economic, for China to disregard them and take action to damage bilateral ties.
Officially nothing has been said as yet on the cancellation of the visa. Some sources are claiming that it was done after the government learnt that Dolkun was the subject of a red corner notice. Will anyone believe this reason? Or will the government be seen to have acted under Chinese pressure? Whatever the government says, the perception is that the latter prompted the revocation of Dolkun’s visa. And perceptions matter most.
The cancellation of the visa will therefore inevitably damage the credibility of the government and expose it to the charge that it does not have the ability to stand up to Chinese pressure. No government, and especially not one that loudly proclaims its strength, should ever find itself open to the accusation of crumbling under pressure. To say that facts have come to light that were not available earlier cannot apply in this case as there is a well-established system to throw up ‘red corner notices,’ especially in such instances. In any case if the ‘red corner notice’ did not shown up in the relevant records earlier, this shows that the record-keeping system is completely unsatisfactory.
Cancelling Dolkun’s visa is the biggest foreign policy mistake made by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his government. It is a blow to the government’s prestige and it will have to find ways to recover from it. This will not be easy and Modi will have to give it his personal attention.
Vivek Katju is a diplomat who served as India’s ambassador to Afghanistan and Myanmar.