Sunday, February 19, 2006

Learning to Recognize Your Friends

This is a bit off-topic for me -- assuming anything in a blog can be off-topic -- but I was distressed to a learn of an embarrassing bit of bureaucratic stupidity by U.S. officials in India recently. (Hat tip: Ram Narayanan, U.S.-India Friendshp.net). I'm surprised this story hasn't gotten even a little attention in this country.

Seems that our counselor officials in India need to brush up on their high school chemistry. And maybe also their common sense.

Just a few weeks ago, one of India's leading scientists, Goverdhan Mehta, was invited to this country to speak at the University of Florida at Gainesville and the American Chemical Society. So he applied for a visa in Chennai, and the nightmare began.

I should point out that Mehta is one of the top scientists in India, and has been in this country many times. He is former director of the Indian Institute of Science, and is one of the world's leading organic chemists. According to the Indian Express, he is "a member of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's Scientific Advisory Committee, has been to the US 20 times, the most recent being May 2005 when he delivered a lecture at the National Academy of Sciences in Washington, DC."

So you'd think a routine request for an entry visa would fly right through. But it didn't. The Express story goes on:

On February 9, Mehta appeared for the visa interview. He said he was "repeatedly humiliated" by the consular officer who accused him of "hiding things," suggesting that Mehta's work related to chemical warfare and bioterrorism. . . Mehta said he told US officials that all his academic research was in the public domain and related to "new molecular entities" and "by no stretch of imagination (could be) related to hemical cwarfare."

No visa.

Well, there was immediately a big media furor in India. Newspapers that are usually have only nice things to say about this country were slamming American "arrogance." Consular officials in India promptly backtracked, saying Mehta was welcome to re-apply, which unsurprisingly he is not going to do. I don't blame him.

A spokesman for the US Embassy in New Delhi said it was a "pretty standard affair to ask for more information." Yeah, that's what worries me.

Hey, I'm all in favor of strict border security. I'm a hard-line guy on that kind of thing. If Mehta really is involved in "chemical warfare" or whatever, I don't him in this country. But please. Don't say an eminent Indian scientist got a humiliating interrogation from a junior factotum because it is S.O.P. -- a "pretty standard affair."

It seems to me our consular officials in India should be able to tell the difference between an leading Indian research chemist and an AQ Khan. If they can't, they should be stamping passports in Swaziland.

Ram Narayanan, who alerted me to this nonsense, entitled his email, "Do US bureaucrats specialize in making enemies out of friends?" He's not just referring to the scientific community. According to the Pew Global Attitudes Survey last year, 71% of Indians -- more than any other country surveyed, including Canada, for Pete's sake -- held a favorable view of the United States.

President Bush is visiting India next month to cement that relationship. Seems that some of our consular officials need to get with the program.

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