Opinion

Is this India’s new dirty word?

For foreigners under the impression that India is a genuine, open democracy I suggest you put the following word on your visa application form and see what happens.

Journalist.

I say this with a bitter taste in my mouth. Of course India is a democracy. But you see, I’ve just spent a total of about eight hours visiting three Indian visa processing bureaus in two countries, and it’s fair to say that India is not my favourite country right now.

India is not known to have an uncomplicated bureaucracy. But for a country that (unlike its big Asian rival to the east) prides itself on being democratic, I am surprised how hard India makes it for foreign journalists trying to visit. Even, like me, for a holiday.

Without all the boring details, I spent much of yesterday ushered from interview to interview at the High Commission of India in Singapore by intensely serious pencil-pushers who asked lots of questions, most inane, some ridiculous.

Is this your first time in India? Why are you going to India? Why are you going to India on holiday? Why are you going on holiday? What is Mumbrella? Is it about Mumbai? I tried to assure them that I write about nothing remotely important, but that didn’t seem to work.

My favourite question came from the chief visa clerk with a badly glued-on wig, who asked me: “What’s your father’s name?”. Geoffrey, I told him. “Well, that doesn’t look like a G,” he said, stabbing his finger at my form. “It looks like a 4.” I wasn’t sure how to answer other than to apologise for poor handwriting.

It was clear that I was being toyed with by people with stamps who revel in the power to say no, perhaps especially to journalists.

Later, with questions out of the way, came out “the form” – a journalists’ visa. I had to sign it to promise that I wouldn’t do any work while I was on holiday – a demand I must say I was comfortable with.

J Visa

I took this picture while a visa clerk had left the room to make another mysterious check-up probably designed to unnerve me. Next to the form was a printed-out prayer glued to the clerk’s desk, which began with: “When I asked God for strength, He gave me difficult situations to face.”

After I’d signed the form, I was sent back to another interview room for yet another terse grilling. Then finally, I was shooed out to the cashier’s desk to pay for my visa, which bizarrely was S$100 cheaper than the first time I tried to buy it the day before they realised I was a journalist.

Having paid, I was then told that my month-long tourist visa would take effect before my trip to India (late June), so would expire mid-trip. Curiously, the friend I would be traveling with, who’s not a journalist, had managed to get a visa that takes effect when he arrives in the country, not before. Funny that.

I was sent back for another round of questioning, by which time I had reached the point where, despite all the pretty ‘Incredible India’ tourism posters on the wall, I had given up. I said I would not be visiting India after all, despite having blown US$1000 on an airfare, and would be visiting somewhere else instead. Please give me a refund.

Every Indian friend I have told about this experience has said that they have never heard of this sort of thing happen before to a journalist. Is this just pride or the truth? One man from Bombay I met last night told me it was because of the elections.

But why would the world’s largest, and probably proudest, democratic country on earth let the world’s biggest democratic event affect one of the things that makes a democracy a true democracy – an unimpeded press. Besides, everyone is a journalist these days. You don’t need the word stamped on your visa to prove that you are one, and make any less of a mischief for the powers that be.

Robin Hicks

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