Close on the heels of reported border incursions, China's recent practice of issuing separate visas to Indian passport holders from Jammu and Kashmir has sparked widespread concern and brought to the fore a growing trust deficit between the two neighbours.
India's External Affairs Ministry conveyed its unhappiness to the Chinese government Thursday, a day after a media report disclosed the practice that is seen to give separate status to the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir, claimed by Pakistan, widely considered Beijing's all-weather ally.
Asked to comment on the development, Defence Minister A K Antony said, "Whether it is Jammu and Kashmir or Arunachal Pradesh, all are integral parts of India. For us, every inch of India is one. There are channels of dealing with our neighbours whenever any issue arises and we always use them to raise our point of view".
"It is our considered view and position that there should be no discrimination against visa applicants of Indian nationality on grounds of domicile or ethnicity," external affairs ministry spokesperson Vishnu Prakash said here. "We have conveyed our well-justified concern to the Chinese government in this regard," he said.
The issue was taken up yesterday with both the Chinese embassy and with the foreign office in Beijing.
"The visas are valid," was all a spokesperson of the Chinese embassy would say when asked about the practice of issuing standalone visas to Kashmiris.
External Affairs Minister S.M. Krishna is likely to raise the issue with his Chinese counterpart Yang Jiechi's visit to India Oct 26-27, top sources told news agencies. Yang will be here to participate in the trilateral meeting of the foreign ministers of India, China and Russia which will be held in Bangalore.
The Chinese embassy has been issuing visas for some time to Indian passport holders from Jammu and Kashmir on a separate sheet of paper rather than stamping them in their passports, which is the norm with other Indian citizens. They have given stapled visas earlier to residents of Arunachal Pradesh, over which China claims its sovereignty.
The embassy, however, said the documents were "valid" and that the problem lay with Indian immigration authorities.
"What we have issued is correct and valid document. It is the problem of your Immigration officers at Indira Gandhi International Airport (Delhi). This practice of issuing visas on separate paper has been there for years now," a Chinese Embassy official said.
Asked how many such visas they issue every year, the Chinese Embassy official put the number at less than 100.
The official said the issue is being played up as one of the Kashmiri students had approached the media. The move is fraught with security risks as the unattached visa does not leave any trail behind and does not fully reflect the travel record of the passport holder.
According to sources, the new practice has coincided with a hardening of Chinese posture on India's northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh. "It's meant to put India on the defensive on the boundary issue," said the sources.
BJP also questioned the government's silence on the issue and demanded that it should be taken up with the neighbouring country.
"We condemn outright the move of Chinese embassy to segregate the people of Jammu and Kashmir while giving these visas. Why is this being done," BJP spokesperson Ravi Shankar Prasad said.
He said this was a serious matter and wondered why the Indian government was not pursuing it with China.
Official sources said the Chinese Embassy had started this practice about a year back and in the process a number of Kashmiris were unable to travel as immigration authorities at the airport did not accept this kind of visa.
The latest development came to light when the affected people spoke to the media in Kashmir about three weeks back on returning dismayed.
"We were given the stapled one (visa)," Bilal Ahmad Beigh, one of the affected students, was quoted as saying.
Quoting the chief visa officer at the Chinese embassy in New Delhi, Beigh said she had told them: "Chinese government welcomes you. Otherwise, we would have not given you the visa. We can’t reveal the reasons behind the two types of visas as it’s against our national interest."
Another student Shuja Altaf Mir said "I visited China in 2004 without any problem but immigration officials are citing some unknown reasons, saying China acknowledges Kashmir as a disputed territory."
Commenting on the development, Jammu and Kashmir Congress president Saifuddin Soz termed it as a "mischief" by China and said Kashmiri travellers should not accept such documents.
"It's extremely troubling and disturbing. It does suggest a new level of tension between India and China. There has to be a political message in what has happened," Mira Sinha Bhattachrjea, a China expert at the Institute of Chinese Studies here, told news agencies.
"Except for a brief period during the India-Pakistan war in 1965, the Chinese have not raised the Kashmir issue," she pointed out.
"If the Chinese are beginning to highlight the disputed status of Jammu and Kashmir, it's a matter of great concern and anxiety," said Bhattachrjea. "Trust deficit is growing."
"These are pinpricks. This could be used as a bargaining chip in boundary negotiations or on other issues like India's claim for a seat in the UN Security Council," Srikanth Kondapalli, a China expert at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, told news agencies.
The visa issue has revived trust deficit, an impression that has been bolstered by reports of recent incursions and a string of hostile posturing by China against India's interests that started with Beijing's alleged negative role in trying to block consensus in the Nuclear Suppliers Group (NSG) a year ago.
Recently, China tried to block a development loan for India in the Asian Development Bank (ADB) on grounds that a part of the loan was meant for irrigation projects in Arunachal Pradesh.