Maselo Mihu and Sorang Yumi, both 14-year-old archers from Arunachal Pradesh, worked hard for over a month at the archery range of the Army Sports Institute, Pune to prepare for their first international sports event. The young archers were excited to participate in the Youth World Archery championship in Wuxi in the eastern costal Jiangsu province of China. The event started on 13 October and will continue till 21 October. The Indian contingent has reached, but the two sportsmen from Arunachal could not make it.
The duo, who were given stapled visas by Chinese authorities, were not allowed to board the flight at Indira Gandhi International Airport in New Delhi by Indian immigration officials since their visas were considered ‘invalid’.
A despondent Yumi said, “We were shocked. Our dreams came crashing down when we were not allowed to board the flight to China, while the rest of our teammates made it. It is the federation that arranged for our visas. We are too young to understand the politics of issuing stapled visas to only the two of us, while the rest of the team gets regular visas.”
“We understand that China lays claim on Arunachal Pradesh, but that is not the fault of Arunachalees like us. We are very much Indian and would like to be a part of India like others. If this continues, young Arunachalee people will not be able to travel to their neighbouring country,” Maselo Mihu said following the incident.
This is not the first time that residents of Arunachal Pradesh travelling to China have been issued stapled visas – a visa which is issued by the visiting country on a separate piece of paper and stapled to their passport. Last year, a student from Arunachal Pradesh was not allowed to board a flight by immigration officials as he was the only one amongst a team of 100 youth from India – who went to China as part of an exchange programme – with a stapled visa.
In 2011, Abraham K Techi, Joint Secretary of Indian Weightlifting Federation, and another weightlifter from Arunachal Pradesh were not allowed to board a China-bound flight because of the stapled visas issued to them by the Chinese embassy.
Regarding the issue, Chief Minister Nabam Tuki said, “We strongly object to the grant of stapled visas. Over the years, people from Arunachal have faced humiliation and harassment on their way to represent the country. While there is very little that the state government can do, I will take up the matter at the highest levels and will appeal to the Prime Minister’s Office to take steps for the early resolution of this issue as it is hampering the scope of Arunachalee people.” The Chief Minister also met the Union Minister of External Affairs, Salman Khurshid and conveyed his concerns to him regarding the issue.
In 2007, India cancelled the study tour of a contingent of 107 IAS officers after China denied a visa to Ganesh Koyu, an officer who hailed from Arunachal Pradesh. “After that incident, China issued regular visas to a few individuals from Arunachal Pradesh who toured the country on a tourist visa. But whenever any resident of Arunchal is a part of any kind of official Indian delegation, China issues a stapled visa. This is a shift from the country’s previous stand, but we have not been able to take it up with China at a diplomatic level since we are ourselves not sure how to handle this shift in policy,” says a senior official in the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). “But we have been successful in negotiating with China. Earlier it used to issue a paper visa or stapled visa to residents of Jammu and Kashmir too. We have been able to resolve that issue – now residents of J&K get a regular visa. We will work it out for Arunachal as well, though it might take some time. We cannot take decisions on our own; we have to listen to our political bosses too.”
After the1962 Sino-Indian war, the border disputes between the two nations escalated. China claims around 90,000 square kilometres in Arunachal Pradesh in the eastern sector of the 4000-km-long Sino-Indian border, while India maintains that China occupies nearly 40,000 square kilometres of its territory in Aksai Chin.
Beijing has always said it would not change its visa policy for any resident from Arunachal Pradesh. In fact, till 2010, China had never issued any type of visa to people from Arunachal Pradesh since it maintains that as Arunachal is a part of its territory, its residents don’t need any visa to travel to China.
“For the people of Arunachal, that policy was clearer as they knew that they would not be able to travel to China as without a visa, one cannot get immigration clearances. Of late, China has started issuing stapled visas. This has angered people because for us, China is like any other neighbour and we would like to travel there. Now India will have to resolve the issue; otherwise it will appear as if New Delhi is taking things lightly. We feel insulted and isolated,” says Jogin Tamai, a resident of Tezu town in Arunachal’s Lohit district close to the China border.
In 2012, Kiren Rijiju, a former BJP MP from Arunachal Pradesh, wrote to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urging for a policy that would allow people from Arunachal Pradesh to travel to China on stapled visas. “I was of the opinion that if we allow it, it would not mean that we are compromising on our sovereignty. Rather it will make Arunachal a less contested region” Rijiju says. But sources in the MEA confirmed that India is firm on the opinion that if it allows citizens to travel with stapled visas, it would be according special status to the residents of Arunachal Pradesh and thereby, in a way, conceding to the territorial claims of China. Moreover, as India does not want to hamper the growing trade and cultural exchanges with China, it wants to negotiate the border disputes separately.
“We must boycott cross-border relations with China. We want to have friendship and better trade relations with China, but not at the cost of the rights of the citizens,” said Ninong Ering, Arunachal East Lok Sabha MP and Minister of State for Minority Affairs, while talking to reporters in New Delhi.
Although these diplomatic tussles do not affect most residents of Arunachal Pradesh, the young and the educated are fuming. “See, it is Indian officials who are not allowing people to travel on stapled visas. We want to be treated like any other Indian citizen, but this just shows the lack of sensitivity of the MEA. Will they do the same if some other country starts discriminating against people from any of the mainland states? We want our diplomats and politicians to take it head on with China. More people from the Northeast want to trade goods with China, but these hurdles do not allow them to,” says Jarpum Gamlin , a noted media entrepreneur from Arunachal’s capital Itanagar.
While India was able to resolve the issue of stapled visas for Jammu & Kashmir residents only after it reacted strongly by suspending joint military exercises, it is yet to show alacrity on this issue. On the contrary, this year, no representative from Arunchal was taken for the Sino-Indian youth exchange programme to avoid the stapled visa hiccough – a defensive act that has only added to Arunchal Pradesh’s residents’ isolation.