Last week, when news broke that India had granted ethnic-Uyghur dissident Dolkun Isa a visa to attend a conference in Dharamshala, New Delhi’s policy community all but rang the temple bells in celebration. This was, the argument went, a long-overdue payback for China blocking efforts to have the Jaish-e-Muhammad chief placed on the United Nations Security Council’s sanctions list.
Finally, enthusiasts trilled, the muscular China diplomacy promised by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was in play. Their joy was shortlived after the Ministry of External Affairs announced that it had cancelled Isa’s visa, on Monday.
India’s official position is that Isa was never given a visa in the first place and therefore, the question of sending a signal to China never arose. Isa—who holds a German passport—applied for and obtained a tourist visa which isn’t valid thanks to the MEA’s Byzantine rules, for visitors who wish to attend conferences.
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New Delhi’s explanation is entirely correct—and just as disingenuous.
It has long been public knowledge that a coalition of Chinese dissidents—including figures from Xinjiang, like Isa, along with leaders of the Falun Gong sect, and democratic rights activist Jianli Yang—were scheduled to meet with the Tibetan leadership in exile from April 28 to May 1.
Any meeting like this, with sensitive geopolitical ramifications, could only have been taking place with the Indian government’s consent so the question of whether Isa had the right kind of visa or not is, at most, of academic interest.
The bottom line is that, singed by the dragon’s breath, New Delhi backed off. On the other hand by acting on China’s complaints the government should not be reflexively condemned. Despite all the bad press China gets in India for backing Pakistan, there are many activities it does not indulge in – for instance, Kashmiri secessionists are not welcome in Beijing, and Naga separatists haven’t had a hearing in decades, either.
Put simply, Beijing doesn’t legitimise domestic separatists in India—and expects New Delhi to adhere to the same standard. Indeed, Beijing sees the political space New Delhi gives the Dalai Lama as something of a provocation, since it isn’t hosting any Indians challenging its sovereignty.
India could, of course, have stuck to its guns and insisted it had every right to let Isa visit the country. It could, alternately, have taken the principled position that as a democracy, it respects the rights of all to speak their minds.
But then, India would have had no grounds to complain if China, in turn, started to grant the legitimacy to Indian rebels or, if some of those rebels began to demand similar free speech rights at home.
There’s no doubt that India can—and must—find means to respond to China’s unprincipled refusal to allow action against Masood Azhar, against whom credible charges of terrorism have been made by successive Pakistani governments. Those actions could range from allowing pro-independence Tibetan groups greater free rein to mobilise in India, all the way to aggressively siding with China’s adversaries on issues it believes are key like the South China Sea.
Each of these actions will have some consequences though, and this is where it becomes important for India to carefully weigh its actions.
The benefits from sanctions against Masood Azhar are minimal: similar sanctions against the Lashkar-e-Taiba have brought India no benefits, after all. The stringent international regime that has operated against both the Taliban and al-Qaeda since 9/11, similarly, has done nothing to stop both from acquiring unprecedented reach and lethality in the years since.
Put simply, the question is this: how much is a bureaucratic win on Masood Azhar really worth to New Delhi?
For the government, there ought be some learning here—the most important of which is that diplomacy isn’t, and ought not, be conducted according to the moral code that governs soccer matches between pimply teenagers. Kicks to the shin, satisfying as they might be, don’t even the score—they just provoke brawls, and brawls end with bloodied noses and broken teeth.
That’s not an outcome two sane powers can allow themselves to drift into, no matter how serious their differences.