INDIA: Outrage over student treatment in US visa case

Indians are outraged over the treatment meted out to Indian students in the US following an immigration visa scam. US authorities confiscated the passports of students enrolled in the California-based Tri-Valley University, accused by the US Attorney's Office of being a fake institution, and radio-tagged some of them to track their movements.

Overseas Affairs Minister Vayalar Ravi (pictured) told local media in New Delhi that such treatment was "most inhuman and unacceptable.

"It is like a lock in the leg. I am also told that it is very heavy. I know the American system. Once you confiscate the passport no one can leave the country. After taking the passports of the students there was no need to radio tag them," Ravi said.

The ankle monitor sends a radio signal containing location details and other information to a receiver. US authorities said it did not necessarily imply guilt or suspicion of criminal activity. It "allows for freedom of movement and is a positive alternative to confinement during a pending investigation," the US State Department said in a statement.

However, the incident has angered students and parents in India and has escalated into a diplomatic incident, with the Indian government lodging a strong protest with the US and demanding stern action against the (immigration) officers.

In a complaint filed on 19 January in the US District Court in San Francisco, the US Attorney's Office alleges that the owner of Tri-Valley University (TVU) used the school to help foreigners - over 90% of them from India - illegally obtain student visas that allowed them to stay in the US.

Many of the 1,555 students who had enrolled at the university, mostly from India's southern state of Andhra Pradesh, could be deported if they are found to be in violation of their immigration status.

The students said they were duped into attending the university. Instead of helping them transfer to a valid institution, the US was treating them as criminals.

"A large number of students had not violated any visa or immigration rules and were unaware of the fraudulent nature of the school," Ashok Kumar Sinha, Consul at the Indian Consulate in San Franscisco, told the official Press Trust of India.

"Many of the TVU students, specially the more recent ones and some who transferred from other accredited universities, were unaware of the true nature of the university and have suddenly found themselves to be victims."

The External Affairs Ministry is also pursuing the matter with the US. "How such a dubious institute was allowed to function and how it was allowed to dupe gullible Indian students is a matter for the US to pursue," External Affairs Minister SM Krishna said.

However, in an apparent attempt to cool rising outrage, Krishna also said the matter should be looked at from the "larger perspective". 'Radio collaring' or tagging affected over a dozen TVU students while thousands of other Indians were studying in the US with no complaints.

"I would appeal to the people of the country and to the media in particular that we should look at it in the larger perspective of these one lakh [100,000] Indian students who are pursuing their studies in various universities," he added.

Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao will take up all issues related to the education of Indians in the US during her 11-13 February visit to Washington.

Meanwhile, students in India are angry over the insensitive treatment. "We have over 100,000 students in the US. Indian students go on to work at some of the best US companies and contribute to the economy. Is this a way to treat them?" said Manju Grewal, a Delhi University student.

"The Indian government should take this matter seriously. First we had to face violence in Australia and nobody really did anything about that. Now students are facing criminal charges for something they could not help."

Others added that the US had given the student visas and the fault lay with the US consulate. "They did not check the credibility of the university and were duped into granting student visas. Why blame the students?" asked V Nagarajan, an IT professional from Chennai in Tamil Nadu state.

Justifying the use of ankle bracelets that track a wearer's movements with radio frequency signals on a few students, a statement from the US Embassy in New Delhi said: "Use of ankle monitors is widespread across the United States and standard procedure for a variety of investigations, and does not necessarily imply guilt or suspicion of criminal activity".

But the sense of outrage is clear from an overwhelmingly negative media. The influential Hindustan Times wrote in an editorial, "considering that the fault for this mess lies within the US and because the racket was conducted by Americans, it seems mighty suspicious that the duped Indians are being made to take the rap.

"On top of it is the treatment meted out to them as criminals with tags. Switch positions and have a bunch of Americans found to be duped by a non-existent yoga instruction centre here and you know what the consequences would have been if Indian authorities had cuffed radio-tags around their limbs."