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Filling out a Canadian visa application form. (AP)
Filling out a Canadian visa application form. (AP)

Richard French

Canada's panicky visa apology Add to ...

India and Canada, two of the postwar world's most notorious international sermonizers, found themselves on either side of a moral morass last week. One, India, apparently eager to take offence, and the other, Canada, chastened and apologetic as only a country that believes its economic interests to be threatened can contrive to be. Let's be honest: If India had not liberalized its economy in 1991, if it were still exhibit No. 1 for the case that statism equals stagnation, this dispute would be relegated to diplomatic telegrams and the ethnic press.

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Canada's immigration officers in New Delhi were refusing visas to former members of India's armed forces, security services and police, on the grounds that these organizations had been involved in human-rights abuses. The Canadian government apologized for casting aspersions on India's institutions. Immigration Minister Jason Kenney said visa officers have too much latitude.

If he was implying that Canada's immigration officials in New Delhi were making up policy as they went along and that as minister, he is somehow not accountable for their actions, he is dead wrong. Everything we know about Canada's bureaucracy suggests that the policy was in all likelihood just that - a decision made consciously by appropriate authorities for reasons they thought justified it. That Mr. Kenney may not have been aware of the policy is, under the doctrine of ministerial responsibility, irrelevant.

The minister said in a statement that Indian defence and security institutions "operate under the framework of democratic processes and the rule of law." Well … democratic framework, yes; rule of law, not so much. India has been exemplary among postcolonial nations in the systematic respect of its armed forces for the supremacy of democratically elected governments. This is one of the major reasons why India has been a successful state and Pakistan a perpetually failing one. But are India's forces of order subject to the rule of law?

The answer must be no. Police and border security forces routinely employ or threaten torture and detention without judicial review. In the best hypothesis, this is to compensate for the ineffectiveness of a chronically overburdened and often corrupt legal apparatus. Under a second hypothesis, these measures are necessary because a "foreign hand" (usually Pakistan) is fomenting subversion. Under a third hypothesis, equally credible, these abuses occur in the service of state political administrations for the purposes of financial predation or political hegemony. None of these are controversial claims, but conventional wisdom among fair-minded observers of India.

I have seen the fresh scars on the back of 13-year-old boy whose parents were fugitives from what they undoubtedly did not regard as "justice." He had been whipped by the police because he wouldn't - couldn't - tell them where his parents were. Security forces and police regularly stage "encounters" - in effect, ambushes in which they fire first upon people they have reason to believe are domestic terrorists. I have heard a former chief secretary (deputy minister) of a state police administration say it did not matter if innocent citizens got caught in the fire of security forces, as long as terrorists were hit.

While I was running a business in India, I was awoken one night with the news that a team of my employees was in jail. Local authorities in a distant region of the state had arrested my people, who were erecting a cellphone antenna, because we had not made the requisite contribution to what they called the police welfare fund. (Later, we had to deal with a demand from the Naxalite terrorists in that region who wanted protection money for not blowing up the same tower.)

India's armed forces have faced exceedingly difficult situations in the Punjab, the Northeast and Kashmir, not to mention Sri Lanka, and their record is not unblemished - but then neither is the British record in Northern Ireland, nor the Canadian record in Somalia or Afghanistan. Here we can see that the policy is not in error because of the falsity of the factual claims in question - these Indian agencies, specifically the police and the security forces, do engage in violations of human rights. The policy is in error because it makes literally millions of innocent Indians, those who served their country honestly and with integrity in those organizations, subject to a prohibition that lacks any foundation in their cases.

Mr. Kenney is right to assume his responsibility to alter the policy. He and his government are wrong to issue a blanket absolution to institutions with dirty hands, on no greater foundation than a panicky misinterpretation of Canada's economic interests.

Richard D. French is CN-Tellier Professor at the Graduate School of Public and International Affairs of the University of Ottawa. He spent four years in the Indian state of Andhra Pradesh as president of Tata Communications.

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