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Travelling blight

Foreign women often face an ordeal during the immigration check at INDIAN airports and consulate, with officials prying into their personal lives and passing snide comments

The immigration officials sitting at the gateway of a country have in several instances been reported to be racist in dealing with travellers from the third world, particularly with darker skin, in the US and Europe. But that in no way gives our Indian immigration officials a licence  to behave the way they do with ‘white’ women.

Some half a dozen women from the West, who are either working in Delhi or frequently visit the city, talk about their objectification by Indian immigration officials, primarily at the airport, and also at the consulate where they apply for visas. They talk about the male gaze, the unfriendly vibes, about the probing personal questions that are asked, sexist comments,  and the implication that they are a bad influence on India’s rich and ancient culture! They are made to feel unwelcome and unwanted.

An interaction that is not meant to stretch beyond a few sentences ends up clouding all their subsequent experiences in India. They are made to feel like a bad fish that will spoil the whole pond.

Shelly is an American with keen interest in Yoga and spirituality—she’s a nirvana seeker. She visits her spiritual guru in Haridwar and likes to spend a couple of months in Kerala every year. A tall woman with deep blue eyes set in an expressive conical face with high cheek bones and tattoos on her forearm, the 39-year-old wears loose clothes on her slender frame and has been spending at least three months a year in India for the last six years. “India is a second home to me,” she says.

Shelly talks fondly about her experience and travels across the length and breadth of the country, but the one experience she hasn’t been able to reconcile with is dealing with immigration official. In December 2016, she arrived at the Delhi airport on her annual trip to India. The immigration official, who she describes as “a burly man with round face and thick lips and balding scalp,” made her wait for nearly five minutes without uttering a word while he repeatedly flipped through her papers. The silence was hard to bear, so Shelly asked: “Is there anything wrong?” “You come to India very often?” he retorted.

“Namaste! Every year to practise yoga and sadhana,” she used some Hindi words to impress him. “Yoga helps only people with pure heart,” he said and added after a pause, “I have heard people in your country are immoral, money minded, slaves of sex.”

“That’s not true,” she protested, as a loud thud of stamping drowned her voice. “Sab paapi Bharat hi chale aate hain (all sinners only come to India),” he murmured in Hindi. She walked away feeling flabbergasted, tears rolling down her face.

“They are in a foul mood all the time, fairly negative and they pass that energy to you. And I don’t understand but I’m affected — I think about it even now,” she says.

Elenora (name changed), 35, is an academic from southern Europe. She comes to India regularly to pursue her scholarly work and stays in a flat at Lajpat Nagar.  She never had any major problem until last year, apart from “minor annoyances” and this feeling of “sense of impotence” before the immigration officials, as “they have the power to arbitrarily turn your plans upside down.”

Last year at the India’s Consulate General in the leading business city of her country, Elenora had a horrific experience. The procedure to obtain a research visa is elaborate. Before submitting your visa application, you need to get a signature from an officer-in-charge, after he goes through the research title and abstract; also checks the credentials of the Indian institution/university that sponsors the visa.

In 2016, Elonora was planning to do research on “Emergency years imposed by Indira Gandhi” and was carrying books pertaining to the topic, and then they had no problem. In 2018, her research was about “women and citizens” that was sponsored by the Jawaharlal Nehru University — she was an affiliated scholar five years ago. She was made to open her backpack; all her books were examined as if she was carrying some classified files.

This was akin to harassment. She was asked “provocative questions” about her project and they wanted an assurance from her that she “wouldn’t create a bad impression of India” in her work. She was asked to return after a week.

Before she left, one of them complimented her on her dress. “So when I went back the second time, I made sure I wore something underwhelming—a shapeless kurti,” she says.

“As soon as I entered, the same official, again commented on my look. ‘Oh, you have changed your dress today!’” She felt belittled and ‘powerless’. Later, she found some of the papers were missing, but she was granted the visa after a barrage of questions on her project.

The ordeal was not over. When she shook hands after collecting the visa, the same official who commented on her attire, “held onto my hands and repeated to me more than twice: ‘you’re very beautiful’”. She felt disgusted when he gestured a flying kiss as she rushed out. “Perhaps I should have punched him on his face as many of my friends later suggested,” she says, but then there were other concerns — her visa, her fellowship in Delhi. Thus, even now she is “happy to talk about it” but is not ready to identify the man.

Israeli girl Noa, in her late twenties, a minimalist who travels light and backpacks across India for months, is a doctor by profession. She has golden dreadlocks, a big nose on a square face, a strong muscular frame. She makes no fuss about the fact that she likes to travel alone and is open to experiences. “I’m a typical person,” she says.

She was totally unprepared for her brush with immigration — the attitude of officialdom. The official asked her, “Are drugs cheaper in India?” She thought that he is asking this question because she’s a doctor, but later she realised there was no way he could have known. So, she said “Yes. AIso, medical treatment is cheap here.”

“Do you know drugs have destroyed a whole generation in Punjab,” he retorted.

“Do I look like a drug addict to you?” she asked. “That’s why you people come to India,” he said.

Lucy from Paris was asked by an immigration official if she “likes Indian men.” While Maya from Belgium—who was wearing a loose top with  tight slacks—was given unsolicited advice by the immigration official to “wear proper clothes as Indians are religious people.” “Why are you telling me this?” she asked. He couldn’t get the question but said, “Foreigners don’t dress up properly and call Indians rapists.”

“This is not the case always, and it’s not wise to paint all of them with the same brush,” says Maya but “that look in their eyes. You know they are judging you.”