The right visa

The Indian government does well to streamline visas for business and employment

Without doubt, India must reform its visa regime and be more welcoming to foreigners who wish to visit, live and work in the country. In the September 2009 issue of Pragati Salil Tripathi calls for the Indian government to relax its atavistic, paranoid policy of deciding what academics and journalists can do in India. Elsewhere, we have argued that it is in India’s interests to remain a magnet for talented individuals in the region. Where foreigners strengthen India’s human capital and engagement with the rest of the world, they must be welcomed. One important foreign policy objective that is not yet on the government’s radar is to strike mutual visa-free/visa-on-arrival travel arrangements bilaterally with important countries.

So what should we make of the Indian government’s decision—announced on 20th August—to ask those without employment visas (“E” visas) to leave the country by midnight tonight? When asked by Open Magazine’s Rahul Bhatia, I said: “It has been reported that the move targets the employment of Chinese blue-collar workers who enter the country on a business visa. This is supported by the fact that only 1800 of the 25000 or so Chinese nationals have now applied for an employment visa. But the government should have handled the matter with greater sensitivity and finesse. Doing it through abrupt emails and personal letters, without proper communications and media engagement, makes the implementation of a desirable policy appear dubious, high-handed and insensitive.” (The magazine published only the money quote)

Chinese companies have run into trouble elsewhere—in Africa, for instance—for importing unskilled labour where they operate. As the India-China economic relationship boomed during this decade, the UPA government—especially its home ministry under that monumentally inept Shivraj Patil—failed to prevent Chinese companies from bringing in unskilled workers under a business (non-employment) visa. Indrani Bagchi reports that the Chinese government was alerted as far back as March this year, but to little avail. It was only when local and Chinese workers clashed in Jharkhand in May that the Indian government was compelled to act.

Now, fears that this will adversely affect foreign investment are overblown—India’s appeal as an investment destination has powerful fundamentals. Besides, India offers more daunting challenges to a prospective foreigner than a mere visa application. Serious investors won’t worry.

Related Link: The home ministry’s FAQ on business & employment visas (PDF)

The Five Hundred Swamis of a Thousand Directions

The Indian East Company

Rajendra Chola’s eleventh century naval expedition across the Bay of Bengal and the conquest of Southeast Asian kingdoms was, according to John Keay, one of “those rare examples of Indian aggression beyond the frontiers of the subcontinent”. The question that intrigues historians is just why did the Cholas embark on such a venture?

The ready answer is booty, for many of the Chola military expeditions involved securing wealth from conquered territories that would be generously given away to their subjects. But there is another angle, arising from the links between the Chola state and commercial interests of the merchant guilds. That’s where the Five Hundred Swamis of Aihole, or disai ayirattu ainnurruvar (the five hundred of a thousand directions) enter the scene.

Geoff Wade argues that “there seems little doubt that the Chola attacks waged on Southeast Asia port polities in 1025 and again in the 1070s, as well as the occupation of Sri Lanka in 1080, were all intended to expand the commercial interests of the polity’s merchants and thereby of the polity itself.” According to this theory, the Chola expedition was intended to break the Srivijaya empire’s hold over the straits of Malacca, to advance the interests of the Five Hundred Swamis.

The Five Hundred Swamis were established in Aihole, in the Raichur doab of what is now Karnataka, and had a second base at Pudukottai in Chola kingdom. An “supra-regional” association of itinerant merchants, it followed the conquering Chola armies, first in peninsular India, and then to their overseas forays.

So what became of them? According to some historians, the present day Lingayat community of Karnataka has its roots in the guild of the five hundred of a thousand directions.

Related Link: The Trading World of the Tamil Merchant, by Kanakalatha Mukund, via Google Books; Guilds in ancient India, on Kamat’s Potpourri