Sunday, November 22, 2009
Visa no problem for terrorists
Apart from my responsibilities as Director of the Maulana Azad Centre in Cairo, I was given the task of dealing with the Egyptian media and intelligentsia, which turned out to be an enriching experience. There were pro-establishment journalists, writers, musicians and artists who would passionately defend the Government and each of its decisions and actions, even when they were patently wrong. They almost convinced me that democracy and development can’t go hand-in-hand, that development must precede democracy.
There were liberals and leftists who could see nothing right about the Government or its policies and, sprawled out on the rattan chairs in the balcony of my apartment overlooking the Nile, they would pour their hearts out late into the night over extra-large measures of whiskey. The next day they would nurse a hangover at work, meekly toe the editorial line laid down by the Government, and call my secretary to check with him when was the next party.
Then there were the sour and dour closet Islamists who worked for small newspapers and magazines that were barely tolerated by the Government. The sods were not only amazingly ill-informed about the world beyond Saudi Arabia (which they would stylishly refer to as ‘KSA’) but nursed a deep grievance against everybody, beginning with Gamal Abdel Nasser and ending with Mr George W Bush. But these members of the Mohammed Atta Fan Club had two redeeming qualities: They were extremely well-networked with the Muslim Brotherhood and, therefore, could effortlessly set up meetings with those whom the Government didn’t want you to meet.
The Government’s local intelligence wing, popularly known as ‘Mukhabarat’, would keep a close watch on all journalists and intellectuals, and monitor their movements. Through an old employee, who had been around since Nasser’s time when the centre was called India Tea House and kept a faded photo of his (he insisted the gawky teenager in the frame was him) shaking hands with Jawaharlal Nehru in his wallet, I met a young officer of the Mukhabarat who became quite a good friend. He occasionally dropped in for a chat and chai at the centre, was an unabashed admirer of Mithun Chakraborty, and had a huge collection of pirated copies of Bollywood blockbusters, including Disco Dancer, which he offered to share with me. I didn’t have the heart to tell him Mithun was no longer in the business of swinging his hips to Bappi Lahiri’s music.
I can’t recall the exact date, but sometime in either late-2003 or early-2004, the Indian Union Muslim League sent an invitation to one of the closet Islamists who used to work for an Arabic rag and posed as an ‘intellectual’ to attend a youth conference in Kerala. He applied for his visa along with a copy of the invitation letter. An alert local employee in the visa section informed me about the invitation that had been extended to this man with particularly rancid views on India and his track record as an India-baiter. I checked with my friend in the Mukhabarat and he told me how this journalist was a frequent visitor to the Pakistani Embassy and would often be spotted hanging around with a chap called Babar who we all thought was a low-level ISI agent and for whom the Pakistani Ambassador had utter and unhidden contempt.
Meanwhile, the Counsellor in charge of consular affairs asked me about the background of this ‘intellectual’ and I sent him a rather long note, giving all details and arguing why he should not be granted a visa, but nor should his application be rejected outright lest he gets to know that we know about him and his activities or asks the organisers of the IUML conference to intercede on his behalf. The Counsellor did precisely that — he kept the application pending. A couple of days before the man was scheduled to travel, the private secretary of a Minister of State in the then NDA Government called the Ambassador and wanted to know why the Embassy was delaying the visa. The Ambassador asked him to speak to the Counsellor, who in turn was told that Mr E Ahmad of the IUML was repeatedly calling the Minister and getting increasingly aggressive. Could he please expeditiously issue the visa? The Counsellor promised to do his best, did nothing, and the man could not attend the IUML conference.
I had almost forgotten about this incident till I read news reports this past week how the Consulate General of India in Chicago had issued multiple entry visas in October 2008 to a suspected Lashkar-e-Tayyeba terrorist and Canadian citizen of Pakistani origin, Tahawwur Hussain Rana, and his wife, Samraz Rana Akhthar, in what appears to be blatant violation of standing instructions issued by the Ministry of Home Affairs — that all visa applications received from people of Pakistani origin must be forwarded to the Ministry for its clearance. Amazingly, the Consul General issued the visa under his ‘discretionary quota’.
Irrespective of whether the FBI is able to substantiate its charges against Tahawwur Hussain Rana and his accomplice, David Coleman Headley, an American citizen of Pakistani origin who was christened Daood Gilani and is the son of a ‘prominent’ Pakistani diplomat, who have been accused of plotting terrorist strikes in India, we need to know how were they able to secure visas without any trouble. Who took the decision? On what basis? Was a background check done? Were rules violated? And, more importantly, will officials who were sufficiently careless about their job to facilitate the entry of potential terrorists into India be punished? Or will the Brotherhood of Babus get into the act and ensure that no action is taken?
This week, on November 26 we will observe the first anniversary of the fidayeen attacks on multiple targets in Mumbai, in which at least 173 people were killed and more than 300 wounded, that were planned and executed by the LeT from its base in Pakistan. The Government of India claims that several measures have been initiated to make it difficult, if not impossible, for terrorists to enter India. That would mean loopholes have been plugged and barriers raised to keep out unwanted and undesirable visitors. Yet, we are now told that a Consul General of India issued visas from his ‘discretionary quota’ to a man who was plotting terrorist attacks on high profile targets in this country. Did he use his ‘discretion’ and exercise his judgement? Or was he asked to issue the visas? Did he by any chance get a call from someone in New Delhi? As my experience in Cairo shows, this cannot be ruled out entirely.
Instead of lighting candles, we should be asking these questions and demanding replies from the Government. That would be a fitting tribute to the victims of 26/11.
(This originally appeared in The Pioneer as my Sunday column, 'Coffee Break'.