The arbitrary application of visa rules in India raises questions on exactly who is being filtered
It was a smooth journey from Adelaide to Bangalore on July 31. Apart from some confusion at check-in over how to process the details of my once-used, multiple-entry tourist visa to India, my transit in Singapore was tranquil and the landing at Kempegowda International Airport slightly ahead of schedule. Once inside the airport, I didn’t dawdle on the way to immigration; I had a long taxi ride ahead and friends waiting to welcome me. An airport official managing the crowd of fresh arrivals directed me towards a counter reserved for diplomats and special assistance passengers. I paused and, gesturing, asked if I should continue. He waved me on.
It’s a cliché almost worn down to the nub that destiny hinges on whether you join the short or long queue: to wonder what might have been futile enough, but no more futile than what actually happened.
Exchanging greetings with the immigration officer, I offered my passport and completed the debarkation card. He observed that I had travelled to India many times before. What was the purpose of this trip? “To visit friends.” When would I be leaving? “In September, on a bus to Dhaka, after applying for a visa to Bangladesh in Kolkata.” Where was I staying in Bangalore? “With friends, at the address provided.” What were my friends’ full names? What were their jobs? To supply these extra details, I called my ‘sponsor’, eventually handing over my phone to the immigration officer so that my friend could speak directly with him. I was told to wait. My passport was taken away by the first man and brought back in a second. The questions continued. What was my job? Had I written any books? How many?
PERSONA NON GRATA
I was sent away from the counter and then called back. Told to sit; told to stand. There was a discussion in Kannada before the questioning resumed at the desk of the supervising officer. Why had I stayed so long on my previous trip? “To recover from an injury, departing within the permitted 90 days.” Why had I travelled to India in the past? “To sightsee, to visit friends, to attend cultural events and for medical treatment.” I showed the officers my recent hospital reports and offered to retrieve copies of my books that I had packed in my suitcase, but by this stage, none of the men were acknowledging my existence. I was still pointing out that my visa, valid till November, would never have been approved by the Indian Consulate, if I was a suspicious character. Meanwhile, the supervisor, with one officious finger, painstakingly typed up my Refusal of Entry form.
Confirming my status as a non-entity, this chit bypassed me entirely and was handed to the airport liaison hovering nearby. I was led away and informed that I had to leave—about 22 hours later—on the next flight back to my port of origin. My passport would be kept in custody. No one could intervene in the decision; no-one could offer an explanation; no-one had any idea what to do with me.
The Refusal of Entry form gives no reason for its application in my circumstances. Information as to why it was issued has not, at the time of writing, been provided to me, to investigating journalists, to my federal MP, or to the Indian Consulate in Sydney. No answers have been forthcoming through official channels, ranging from the Foreigner Regional Registration Office in Bangalore to the Ministry of External Affairs. In the absence of a formal explanation, the matter of my denied entry is open to varied speculation.
One theory is that my frequent trips to India indicate I maintain an illegal residence or job, smoke-screened by numerous tourist visas (India isn’t incredible enough to warrant annual pleasure trips). Another is that I have a peculiar face and the officers just didn’t like the look of me, a suggestion that’s slightly less absurd considering the widespread practice of ethnic, gender and sexual profiling.
Then there’s the theory of diplomatic retribution—India’s payback for the times its citizens are questioned, harassed and detained while travelling (Frankfurt Airport is reputedly notorious), or denied access to countries like Australia. As a social scientist, I can’t help but locate this reprisal within Ashis Nandy’s concept of ‘third world nationalism’, which surely includes the regulation of sovereign borders as a defensive reaction to colonialism.
Tension across the sub-continent, in some respects a related reaction to colonialism, has also been cited in my case: reports have emphasised my planned itinerary from pre-election India to pre-election Bangladesh, as well as my long-standing ties to both countries.
Although I was informed by staff from both the airline and the Australian Consulate in Chennai that I would be free to travel where I chose once outside Indian jurisdiction, swapping my destination from Adelaide to Dhaka did not impress immigration officers in Singapore, any more than the cloud of suspicion cast by my experience in Bangalore. Denied entry to Singapore and passage to Bangladesh, my passport was again confiscated and I was escorted by airport police to a detainment facility in the bowels of Changi Airport, where my electronic recording devices and writing materials were locked away until my enforced flight to Australia.
I chatted with women from Sri Lanka and the Philippines, also detained due to unfortunate rather than malicious circumstances (note to the Australian Department of Home Affairs: as immigration detainees predominantly are) and read Kamila Shamsie’s ‘Home Fire’, which opens with the scene of Isma’s interrogation as she tries to catch a flight from London to the US. As far as my privilege was concerned, it was an illuminating day in protective custody.
Allegedly, somewhere down the line, I breached Indian visa conditions. Upon learning that I had previously participated in literary festivals, the immigration supervisor at Bangalore told me I should have entered on a conference visa—an opinion later echoed by an official at the Bureau of Immigration. Festivals, I parsed at the time, are not the same as conferences. Certainly, literary festivals and similar cultural events do not fall under the auspices of the described conference visa category.
For future reference, I called the Indian consular services helpline once I’d returned to Australia and was told that if I intended to participate in a literary festival I should apply for a tourist visa. To double check, I sent the same inquiry via email: I was instructed to submit a tourist visa application, which would then be forwarded to the Consulate for pre-approval. To triple check, I sent the same inquiry to the Indian Consulate in Sydney. I have not yet received a reply.
Supported by a number of colleagues in India and beyond is the theory that my refused entry had less to do with visas and more to do with my occupation as a writer, capped by the tell-tale title of Doctor. As an author, it’s easy enough to look back over what I’ve observed, researched, recorded and published about India and realise that while it’s not frontline journalism, neither is it apolitical. Added to my associations with fellow writers and editors; academics and universities; artists and art spaces; musicians; filmmakers; social, environmental and political activists; feminist and Ambedkarite groups; journalists; book-sellers and publishers across India, I can see how all this might potentially ignite.
I tried to think like the immigration officer who wasn’t interested in knowing whether or not I was a journalist but whether or not I wrote books: to paraphrase a friend, the word “writer” signifies access to certain research tools, to the media and to various channels of publication. I have been quoted as admitting doubt over whether I was or wasn’t profiled as a pesky intellectual. This is due to the tension between a healthy awareness of me under the radar insignificance and the persistent, baffling question: if I wasn’t targeted, why has no clear and prompt explanation been offered?
Immigration officers in Bangalore must have believed I posed a danger to their nation—either that or they denied my entry for none of the above, which would be a serious accusation of unlawful conduct. Similar thinking must also be applied to the cases of Annie Zaman, Kurt Vogele, Mukunda Raj Kattel, Aaron Gray-Block, Ben Hargreaves and others recently refused entry to India. While those affiliated to organisations were clearly informed of their blacklisted status, it now appears a screening of generally undesirable intellectuals and activists has emerged, where suspicion equals evidence and any implication of wrongdoing deserves punishment.
What countries with hostile borders, including my own, should consider is that if you humiliate your guests and abruptly show them the door, there is no longer any basis—beyond their own decency—for them to be obliged to behave like guests. In these circumstances, isn’t it a bit too much to expect the same level of affection, courtesy and respect as before? Or to count on their continued discretion? Particularly those with access to certain research tools, to the media and to various channels of publication.
Fixing an impression of a person in the time it takes to slide a passport over a counter is human nature. So is psychological reactance, the phenomenon that prompts suspected radicals to become actual radicals. If ambiguity is the weapon of an unfeeling authority, politicising people is its weak spot—a sign of latent insecurity that is, in the end, quite justified.