India is no longer on UK fast track

Last week, there was a strong undercurrent of indignation in middle class India over the exclusion of India from the list of countries approved by the United Kingdom for quick processing of student visas. In theory, this should have been a non-issue. All countries have an inalienable and sovereign right to decide who to let into their country and under what conditions. While the UK remains a relatively popular destination (though not as popular as before) for Indian students, especially those who finance their own studies, it is understandable that the host country should conduct thorough checks on the bona fides of the applicants and convince themselves (as much as is possible) that the applicant is a genuine student, that the educational institution he/she has secured admission to is not dodgy, that the student has enough funds at his/her disposal to meet the high fees and living costs and, finally, that the student is not principally interested in becoming an illegal immigrant.

The middle class indignation is not centred on the UK’s due diligence procedures — all countries conduct broadly similar checks, not least the United States, which is by far the most popular destination for Indian students. The resentment was based on the fact that some countries, including China, are now eligible for quicker processing of their visa papers. Earlier, Chinese nationals were granted cheaper visa fees, a privilege denied to Indian passport holders, who make up a significant proportion of visitors to the UK.

Earlier, Indians mainly went to visit relatives and weren’t big spenders. But that has changed quite significantly. Today’s Indian tourists are likely to spend quite generously while in the UK. While this may not equal the spending habits of, say, Americans, Chinese, Japan and the Arab countries, our middle class does not lag behind in generosity — although, this may not, as a rule, extend to fine dining. Under the circumstances, we desis may like to believe that the British decision to deny us special privileges is patently discriminatory.

At the level of diplomacy, the decision to leave India out of the preferential list has not gone down well. Successive British prime minister from the time of John Major have visited India and spoken eloquently about an “enhanced partnership” that ties India with the UK. What is so enhanced, the argument goes, if India continues to be placed in the Janata queue? Why is India assiduously wooed as a market for armaments and defence goods but Indians shoved aside?

These are legitimate questions that London will need to consider if the long-term development of bilateral relations is not to be jeopardised. Has the decision to not include India in the fast track list got anything to do with the failure of the two governments to sign a deal that ensures a time bound process for the repatriation of Indian citizens who have overstayed their legal welcome in the UK?

The two governments had almost reached an agreement that would have ensured the smooth repatriation of nearly one lakh alleged Indian citizens who were in the UK illegally. However, there were some last minute snafus, caused in part by differences in perception between different wings of the Indian government, that prevented the agreement from being signed when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visited London for the Commonwealth summit last April. The UK side is said to be furious at this apparent Indian backsliding and it is said that the decision to downgrade India is a consequence of this anger.

The tensions may be real but I don’t think the problem defies resolution. The Indian argument that the timeline for detection, verification and deportation must be more realistic, keeping in mind what the Indian police forces are capable of delivering, is not altogether misplaced. What the UK has to realise is that a difference of a couple months between detection and deportation will not make a fundamental difference to the larger principle of India accepting responsibility for its errant citizens. If the UK sits on a high horse and makes a fuss over timelines, the very objective of transforming India into a ‘low risk’ country will suffer a setback.

However, there is something that we Indians must also internalise. It has to be recognised by all Indians that the whole of Europe and the US is in turmoil over immigration. True, India is an insignificant contributor to the refugee problem that has surfaced since the exodus from Iraq, Syria and North Africa since 2015. But for the host populations of Europe and the US, the distinction between a relatively stable India and an unsettled Islamist zone is largely academic.

In recent years, the nature of Indian emigration, too, has changed. From being suppliers of unskilled labour India is now a favoured supplier of highly skilled professionals. Indian emigrants create wealth and add to the competitiveness of their host countries. More to the point, Indian emigrants are peaceful, law-abiding and unreceptive to the type of extremist politics that have plagued Europe. Indians deserve to be viewed differently.

The question is whether a more enlightened approach to Indians will be helped by our officials getting prickly over slights, real or imaginary? I think it is time that the Indian government realises that the priority to detach the issue of Indian professionals seeking employment overseas is detached from the larger of immigration which is now a hot potato in the West. The more imaginative ways this objective is realised should form an important part of strategic planning in our foreign policy establishment.

Swapan Dasgupta is a senior journalist and Member of Parliament, being a presidential nominee to the Rajya Sabha.

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