It’s a piece of reinforced paper, approximately five inches by four inches. Small and innocuous looking as it is, it holds your destiny within its confines. It is not your janampatri, the configuration of stars and planets at the time of your birth which determines your future. It is something even more fateful than that. It’s your Indian passport.
I remember when I was a child of seven or eight, the extended family got together for a very special celebratory occasion. Grandparents, assorted aunts, nephews, nieces, cousins all foregathered at the house of my uncle Madhubhai.
Ladoos were distributed and consumed, a photographer specially hired for the event took pictures. Reverentially, the object at the centre of these ceremonial rites was passed from hand to hand. It was Madhubhai’s brand new Indian passport, the first such document to be owned by anyone in the family.
In those days in the early 1950s, India was cut off from the outside world by the khadi curtain of austerity. ‘Foreign’ represented a geography more remote and difficult of access than the landscape of the moon. Being ‘foreign returned’—or, as in the case of Madhubhai, ‘about to be foreign returned’—bestowed great social status on a person.
Forget being foreign returned. Even owning a passport was deemed to be a cachet very few Indians could aspire to.
Seventy-odd years later things have changed a lot. Or have they? Today, Indian passports are a dime a dozen, a little more if you want a tatkal version, which you can get in double quick time.
Moreover, the bad old days when you had to smuggle priceless foreign exchange out of the country to supplement your official allowance of $8 (which was the allowance in 1972 when I made my first foreign foray) are long past.
Today, if you have a sufficiency of rupees, you can legally remit every year up to $250,000 anywhere in the world. How cool is that.
There is only one problem: your passport, which identifies you as an Indian. And which makes it difficult—and in not a few cases impossible—for you to get the required visa for the country you want to visit.
This is particularly the case if you happen to be a young woman of marriageable age. Or a student enrolled in some obscure educational institution. Or a senior citizen with children resident in the country for which you are seeking a visa.
If you happen to fit any of these descriptions, it is more than possible that your visa application will either be turned down or that you will eventually get your visa only after you have subjected yourself to a ‘personal interview’, which is more in the nature of a police interrogation falling just short of the employment of third degree methods.
The reason for this is that all people from the subcontinent—which includes Pakistanis and Bangladeshis, along with whom Indians are also lumped—are widely seen to be potential illegal immigrants.
Much before the recent refugee influx into Europe from Iraq, Syria and other Arabic countries began, Indians were perceived to be an immigration threat as prophesied by the infamous ‘rivers of blood’ tirade made by the British politician Enoch Powell in the 1970s.
Never mind that India-born Lakshmi Mittal is one of the richest men in the UK. Britain’s Border Control officials—many of who are of Indian origin—routinely treat the Indian passport holder with suspicion. This is true not only of Britain, but of almost any other country you care to name.
A lot of Indians who do go abroad do so as ‘kabutars’, pigeons of illicit migration. And in doing so they have downgraded the Indian passport to near junk status in the eyes of immigration officials the world over.
The irony is that, in a fawning attempt to woo overseas tourists and other visitors, India freely grants visas on arrival to citizens of countries which are specially stringent in their rules regarding the entry of Indians into their domain, such as Finland and France, to name only two.
Indian passport? Maybe we should rename it Indian stop-port. Because that’s what it often does —puts a fullstop to your going places.
The author is a writer, columnist and author of several books