Great Indo-UK cooperation on issue of fugitives: envoy

The extradition trial of liquor tycoon Vijay Mallya is among the high-profile cases of fugitives handled by YK Singh. Reuters file photo.

India's outgoing high commissioner to the UK, YK Sinha, believes he is concluding his tenure at a time when there is far greater cooperation between both governments on contentious issues such as fugitives from the Indian justice system finding refuge in Britain.

As the senior diplomat retires from the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) this month after 37 years, he said it was one of the areas that had registered marked improvement to ensure that people do not misuse the freedoms offered in the UK to escape justice in India.

"On issues such as fugitives from justice, I think there is greater appreciation of our position on this and certainly there is much greater cooperation between our agencies and governments in trying to ensure that people don't misuse the freedom and legal systems to escape justice back home," he said in an interview.

Some of the high-profile cases of fugitives from justice coincided with his 23-month posting at the Indian High Commission in London, including the extradition trial of liquor tycoon Vijay Mallya who is wanted in India on fraud and money laundering charges amounting to nearly Rs 9,000 crore.

"We can judge the level of cooperation based on what the outcome is. But the kind of cooperation we have now, perhaps didn't exist earlier or was much less," Sinha said.

He also highlighted terrorism as a significant area of closer engagement and a realisation in Britain of the dangers posed by India's immediate neighbourhood of Pakistan.

He said, "In our neighbourhood, there is considerable instability. There is extremism, there is terrorism and that affects not just India but the entire world."

"After all, the UK has suffered last year from terrorist attacks, some of the provenance of which may be from our neighbourhood. So, it is important that we cooperate, and the good thing is that we are already doing so, having realised the importance of jointly combatting this menace."

On the persistent sticking point of UK visa offer for Indians in line with other countries, the high commissioner said the debate must be put in "perspective" as only one aspect of a much broader relationship.

The UK government often links the issue of a stricter visa regime for Indian students and professionals with the issue of "overstayers". The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has recently highlighted that "India accounts for the largest number of individuals in the UK illegally".

"To build a really solid partnership post-Brexit, this (issue of visas) needs to be looked at in totality. But if it is linked with other issues then it has its own problems. It is a legitimate exercise to reduce illegal immigration, it needs to be tackled, but to link it to visas is myopic and self-defeating policy," Sinha said.

"I am not disputing the fact that there are overstayers, but solid evidence is needed to back it up," he said.

Among some of the inexplicable aspects of the consular relationship is the fact that while India has an agreement with 19 European Union (EU) countries for visa-free travel of diplomatic passport-holders, Britain continues to hold out from signing a similar deal.

Also, recently an expanded list of countries to be offered a simplified student visa application system to UK universities excluded India.

The IFS officer said, "Indian student numbers have dropped drastically from five-six years ago, almost 50 per cent. Now, encouragingly, the numbers are going up, but they are still far short of earlier, with the UK losing out to other destinations."

"The UK needs professionals. People of Indian origin and people from India form the backbone of the NHS (National Health Service). There is already a relationship, which would be further strengthened by sensible policies," he added.

Sinha, however, believes that because the issue of visas affects the common man it gets highlighted at the expense of some of the other major achievements of the bilateral exchange.

The UK is one of the largest investors into India and stepped up investments in recent years reflect its confidence in the Indian market and also a desire to engage, the envoy said.

A series of high-profile visits on both sides, most recently that of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit for the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting (CHOGM) in London and Windsor in April this year, and the UK-India Year of Culture in 2017 are among the highlights of Sinha's UK posting.

His varied efforts of outreaching to the Indian community, including several gurdwaras and Sikh groups, and celebrating each state of India at India House in London were among some of the initiatives that he hopes would have an enduring impact on India-UK ties.

Though Sinha, who turned 60 earlier in October, has not ruled out the idea of penning down his memoirs post-retirement, he plans to start by taking some time off at the end of a long career.

"I haven't made up my mind, but I would certainly like to record some of the more interesting episodes and events throughout my diplomatic career. But after 37 years, one needs some downtime to spend with family and friends. But I will certainly do something because 60 is the new 40," he said.

Sinha will head back to India next week with his successor, Ruchi Ghanshyam, set to take over as Indian High Commissioner to the UK in early November.

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Great Indo-UK cooperation on issue of fugitives: envoy

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