A sledgehammer to swat flies

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It is possible to make a lawyerly argument that Jakob Lindenthal, the German exchange student at IIT-Madras who was directed to leave India on Monday, had it coming. In participating in a students’ protests against the Citizenship (Amendment) Act — he was seen carrying a placard likening a post-CAA India to Nazi Germany, and another equating policemen to “criminals” — Lindenthal was in technical violation of his student visa. Such visas are granted to foreigners “whose sole objective is to pursue on-campus, full-time (structured) courses… at educational institutions.”

In any case, all visas are subject to conditions, and are issued at the pleasure of host countries’ governments, which may rescind them at their will. Lindenthal would just as surely have been in violation if he had, for instance, taken up employment in India while on a student visa. To that extent, the episode holds a teachable moment for Lindenthal: he probably got caught up in the heady swirl of left-wing radical politics without adequate application of mind to his vulnerabilitygiven his visa status.

It is also true that some governments around the world are increasingly wary of politicking on their soil by “visitors”. In fact, starting May this year, US visa applicants were required to provide their “social media identifiers”. The move was ostensibly in defence of national security, but it allowed authorities to screen and vet visa applicants for their political leanings, even before they landed on US soil.

Nevertheless, it is a reflection of the extreme prickliness of the government that it has amplified the well-meaning but ill-informed action of a nobody from nowhere, made a liberal hero of him, and ironically half-ways reinforced the substance of his placard message. The government perhaps reckons it is signalling a ‘zero tolerance’ approach to meddlesome interference by non-entities into internal affairs, but its action is akin to using a sledgehammer to swat a fly. It only draws more attention to the government’s defensiveness on the contentious issue.

The writer is Associate Editor with BusinessLine

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