Last week, when news broke that India had granted ethnic Uyghur dissident Dolkun Isa a visa to attend a conference in Dharamsala, New Delhi’s policy community all but rang temple bells in celebration. Finally, enthusiasts trilled, the muscular China diplomacy Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised was in play — handing long-overdue payback to China for blocking Delhi’s efforts to have Jaish-e-Muhammad chief Masood Azhar sanctioned by the UN. The euphoria crumbled on Monday, when the external affairs ministry announced it had cancelled Isa’s visa, in response to irate Chinese protests. Delhi’s official position is that Isa, who holds a German passport, applied for and obtained a tourist visa online, which was not valid for visitors wanting to attend conferences. There was no intention to send any diplomatic message to Beijing by granting a visa to Isa, the MEA said — and thus, no question of back-peddling by revoking it.
Delhi’s explanation is disingenuous. The government, like the public, has long known that a coalition of Chinese dissidents — among them, figures hailing from terrorism-torn Xinjiang, members of the Falun Gong sect, and democratic rights activist Jianli Yang — were scheduled to meet with the Tibetan leadership in exile later this month. No meeting like this could have been organised without the Indian government’s consent, so the question of whether Isa had the right kind of visa or not is largely academic. The fact that such a meeting is being held is meant to signal Delhi’s ire at Beijing’s refusal to acknowledge its concerns on terrorism.
Delhi, though, had reason to back down. For all the bad press China gets in India, the fact is it doesn’t provide Indian separatists a platform in Beijing: There are no Hurriyat Conference seminars in the Forbidden City, nor lobbying offices for Northeast insurgents. Had India allowed Isa to come, there’s no doubt China would have retaliated, thus sparking off a series of tit-for-tat actions. Moreover, the gains from having Azhar sanctioned are low: UN sanctions against the Lashkar-e-Taiba, for example, or for that matter against al-Qaeda, have done little to degrade those terror groups. There’s no doubt that India must find the means to respond to China’s disgraceful stonewalling on the sanctions issue, but it must be tempered by cold-blooded appraisal of the costs against the — minimal — gains. Giving Isa a visa was the equivalent of administering the dragon a kick in the shin — an act that, satisfying as it might be, was profoundly unlikely to coerce it into good behaviour. Taming the dragon will need thought-through strategy, not the showy bravado of the schoolboy that this sad affair put on display for the world to see.