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India: visa problems for English cricketer reflect a longstanding security rift with neighbouring Pakistan

India: visa problems for English cricketer reflect a longstanding security rift with neighbouring Pakistan

Young England cricketer Shoaib Bashir arrived in Hyderabad just in time to see the team triumph in style, inflicting a rare and unexpected victory against an Indian side considered nigh on unbeatable on its home turf. Bashir, a 20-year-old spin bowler who had been a surprise selection when the team was announced at the beginning of January, missed the first Test match because his Indian visa had been delayed.

This is not the first time a visiting cricketer has had visa problems in India. The same has happened to English cricketers Moeen Ali and Saqib Mahmood, while Australian opening batsman Usman Khawaja was forced to wait 24 hours before joining his teammates for a tour of India in February 2023. These are all cricketers with Pakistani heritage.

Meanwhile, during the cricket World Cup hosted by India in October 2023, visas for the Pakistan team were subject to delays while Pakistani fans and journalists were effectively barred from the tournament completely.

The World Cup ban for journalists and fans appears to be a reflection of the current acrimonious state of relations between India and Pakistan. But the difficulties experienced by overseas players of Pakistani origin reflects a longer-term Indian suspicion towards visitors with Pakistani roots and has a degree of justification.

Terror attacks in Mumbai in 2008, which claimed the lives of 166 people, were orchestrated by terrorists of the Pakistan-based Lashkar-e-Taiba (LeT) in collusion with the Pakistani Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI). But one operative responsible for conducting reconnaissance of the targets for attack was an American national of Pakistani origin named David Headley. Headley, in his visa application, had concealed his Pakistani roots and managed to visit India multiple times to reconnoitre the targets.

As a result, the Indian Home Ministry (MHA), which is in charge of internal security, decided to tighten the visa requirements. Since 2009, all visa applications made by people with Pakistani roots were to be vetted and cleared by the MHA – a process that can take up to 90 days.

Some observers have called this a “racist” move directed squarely at Pakistanis that violates UK, European, and international human rights law. Others, meanwhile, have termed it “collective punishment” of the kind that is often seen in South Asia.

The US and UK governments lodged diplomatic protests against India’s decision to tighten its visa rules, but the Indian government resisted the pressure. US citizens who complained to the US State Department were simply told that India had a right to deny visas as it chooses.

One reason for the western weakness in being able to press this issue with the Indian government was arguably because of their the west’s consistent failure in accommodating India’s counter-terrorism concerns over the years. Headley, for instance, was not only an LeT operative but also an agent of the US government’s Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA). Indian security agencies believe US intelligence could have done more to help prevent the attack.

Similarly, the UK had an unsympathetic attitude towards India’s security concerns about British Pakistanis. Several requests by Indian intelligence officials to monitor suspected British Pakistanis had failed to elicit serious responses from their British counterparts.

Mindful of international pressure to exercise restraint in the aftermath of the attacks, the then Manmohan Singh government instituted several defensive counter-terrorism measures, including the new visa rules. But India-Pakistan relations remained active, despite the problem of cross-border terrorism.

Modi’s neighbourhood policy

After Modi came to power in 2014, despite his Hindu nationalist image, his government made peaceful overtures over the next couple of years in pursuit of what India called its “neighbourhood-first policy”. This aimed to encourage cross-border cooperation and business enterprise across South Asia and focused on building deeper people-to-people ties.

But as terrorist attacks from Pakistan continued, India changed its tack to more forceful measures targeting terrorist bases within Pakistan. As a result, a new mantra became popular in Indian government circles: “terror and talks cannot go together”.

In August 2019, India overturned Article 370, which allowed it to split the contested state of Kashmir into two centrally administered provinces: Jammu and Kashmir, and Ladakh. This angered the Pakistan government which felt it should have been consulted. Pakistan then announced any further security cooperation would be conditional on India’s restoration of Article 370. Since then there has been a total standstill in bilateral relations.

Focus on counter-terrorism

Meanwhile a focus on regional counter-terrorism has become something of a mantra for Modi’s ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Consistent with this, the Modi government declared support to Israel following the October 7 attacks and to the recent Iranian air strikes against Pakistan, claiming “zero tolerance towards terrorism”.

Seen within this paradigm, India’s approach towards Pakistan is unlikely to change as the country expects its general elections in April. Recent speeches by Indian officials further indicate that, while the neighbourhood continues to remain a high priority for Modi, it is “with the exception of Pakistan”.

A poll taken in India in August 2023 reflected a growing public negativity towards Pakistan. The Pew Foundation poll found that 73% were unfavourable towards Pakistan (57% very unfavourable). In light of this, in the run-up to the April election, Modi is likely to feel that any positive gestures towards Pakistan might by politically unviable.

It’s a similar situation in Pakistan in the run-up to the general election there in February. A hostile military in control of domestic politics combined with strong anti-India public opinion invalidate any prospects for reestablishing ties with India. This is despite the obvious need for stronger economic cooperation with India to ease its current domestic crisis.

So, given the strong likelihood of a Modi victory in April and Pakistan’s intransigence in sponsorship of terror outfits, the visa hassles for Pakistanis or westerners with Pakistani roots are unlikely to stop any time soon.

Dheeraj Paramesha does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.