Visas, or rather their revocation, make strange bedfellows. A week ago, one would have said Ram Guha, anthropologist and historian, had little in common with Narendra Modi apart from the usual complement of four limbs, a mouth and two eyes.
One sports gold-rimmed Bulgari glasses and a scruffy beard; the other is clean-shaven and wears discreet tortoise-shelled rims. One thrives on civilised debate, the other spends vast amounts of energy inciting communal disharmony.
Both were invited to visit the US -- admittedly by very different sets of people. And both were denied entry to the land of the brave and the home of the free despite possessing spotless track records in terms of previous US visits.
Callous US, guilty Bush
In both cases, the US actually revoked valid visas it had issued, implying that it had earlier found Guha's and Modi's presence unobjectionable.
The inconsistency and arbitrariness of the process is troubling. Guha was turned away because a US immigration officer refused to believe that a Third World academic would be invited and paid a generous honorarium to deliver lectures by an American university.
Modi's visa was revoked on the grounds of his 'carrying out particularly severe violations of religious freedom' under a citation of the International Religious Freedom Act.
Not every academic from the Third World is turned away on the grounds that it is unlikely an American university would pay them to deliver lectures. In fact, the campuses of US universities teem with Third World academics who are paid to perform precisely this task. It was at the discretionary power of one immigration official, presumably low down in the food chain, that Guha's visa was revoked.
Modi's decision was obviously taken at a much higher level. Presumably the US decided that it didn't want to handle the inevitable protests a visit from the Gujarat chief minister would provoke.
'Decision taken at highest level'
It hunted through its rulebooks and found an act that could be conveniently used to keep Modi out. Fair enough.
But not every violator of religious freedom is turned away at the US' doorstep. Ariel Sharon visits on a regular basis and so do Saudi princes, Chinese officials, and assorted bureaucrats and politicians hailing from many other nations noted for their lack of religious freedom.
One may argue that there is a fair amount of evidence that Modi's administration was indictable in the post-Godhra massacres. But Sharon was undoubtedly the man directly in charge when the Israelis blockaded the Palestinian refugee camps at Sabra and Shatila in September 1982, and sent in Lebanese militiamen to massacre the PLO.
The Saudis make no secret of their enthusiastic suppression of religious freedom and nor do the Chinese. The US routinely hands out visas to visitors from these nations, including to officials who are directly responsible for acts of suppression. It does not invoke this Act except when it suits it.
One can scarcely argue with a great deal of conviction in favour of Modi being allowed to wander the world as he pleases. There is just too much anecdotal evidence on record from far too many sources to suggest that he encouraged the post-Godhra rioting.
The charges against him are no less heavy because they have not been officially proved. It is unfortunate in the Indian context that there will probably be no conclusions drawn on Godhra for another decade or more.
After all, the courts are still wading through evidence pertaining to an incident that occurred at a place of worship in Faizabad on December 6, 1992. But is the US visa issuance process really this arbitrary? It seems so indeed. X gets a visa, Y doesn't -- there's no apparent reason why. A faceless civil servant at the airport revokes a valid visa without any consultation of higher-ups.
An act pertaining to religious freedom and the suppression thereof is sometimes invoked and often, not. It's an odd way for a nation that sanctimoniously trumpets its commitment to the rule of law to behave.