On January 19, 2018, my American (read: white) wife and I checked in at the airport in Seattle for flights to Mumbai. We were in high spirits; a journey gets our spirits up. After all, for all the challenges of India, one goes there with emotion bound in heredity.
The airport in Seattle is a shining, modern, cheerful place buzzing with activity, excitement. Our check-in would be routine except the airline clerk noticed in our passports that our visa to India would expire a few days before our return flights. No problem, he said. He surfed the web and noticed ‘Visa on Arrival’ articles on google. We were cleared to board. I confirmed the Visa on Arrival promise of Indian government on the airplane.
It was around 3 a.m. when our flight from Amsterdam arrived at Mumbai’s now swanky airport. As we descended the stairs into the immigration atrium, large human-sized yellow signs announced: “Visa on Arrival,” even guiding Japanese nationals, in particular, to specific immigration booths. When we reached an immigration clerk, he noticed the same difficulty that the airline clerk in Seattle had.
Polite and friendly, he suggested we deal with it by going to the FRRO office in Mumbai. And what about those signs and internet articles that say Visa on Arrival? Oh well, that is only applicable if you have applied minimum 3 days earlier! But the English language announcement Visa on Arrival means that it would be available on arrival. No, not in India. Someone had designed the sign without thinking through its meaning. Darn.
“What if we don’t extend the visa?” I asked. “You would be deported” he replied. “That would be no problem,” I said. He followed with, “We could ban you from entering India.” It was serious. We were cleared for 7 days — duration of my visa.
After checking in at the hotel, with just 2 hours of sleep, we hired a taxi to the FRRO office.
The Foreign Regional Registration Office (FRRO) sits in Dhobi Talao, once a ritzy part of south Bombay. It is a large white building in English colonial style. Once an imposing edifice, years of Indian management had taken their toll. The paint had peeled, cobwebs covered the walls, decay was everywhere. We climbed the broad stairs that spoke of power of the office once, perhaps to the third floor.
At top of the floors, two officials sat behind computer screens with a seriousness in which Indian bureaucracy is drilled. Two wings stretched on either side of the hall. Doors covered in a dozen layers of paint opened to offices, desks piled high with files. Tube lights, ancient and without diffusers dangled from walls and ceilings, some with mere one screw holding them up. An African family waited in one of the wings, children finding ways to play. We joined them.
It was our turn. Cordially, we explained our situation, presented our passports. I am obviously Indian, by name and by the most characteristic dark circles under my eyes. My wife is Portugal-born, naturalized American. At this time, I was 70, and my wife was 68. Our U.S. passports were valid for years more.
The official, a lady, scanned our passports and said calmly, “Sir, I will need your birth certificate.” “I’m sorry? I have had a valid U.S. Passport since 1988.” “Well, sir; because you were born in India, I will need your birth certificate. We won’t need madam’s since she was not born in India.”
We were flabbergasted by the logic of that. I pleaded on: “Back when I was born in 1948 in UP, nobody had birth certificates. How can I?” She was somewhat understanding, with something like, “I know; but I still need it for your visa extension. Not for madam,” she emphasized.
I did not know if to laugh at the foolishness of the requirement, or cry at the consequence of denial. “Would you please take the case to the higher authority?” She left her desk and headed off down one wing. It was not long before she returned with a wry, “Sorry, sir. Madam (the chief of FRRO) would not allow it. We will need the birth certificate.” We left unceremoniously.
I happen to know a high official in the Indian prime minister’s office. I reached out for comfort. The visa extension denial would jeopardize meetings in Delhi. Although I did not ask for his help, our friend searched out the head of FRRO. He had asked her to consider the case afresh. I declined.
We do not do things this way. We cut short our India trip, cancelling a tour to beautiful Jaisalmer, Rajasthan and also a high level appointment at NITI. We left for home within the permitted validity period of the visa. I had a few hours of validity left.
On returning home in Seattle, I phoned Yadav, the one who could have granted a waiver when we were at her office. Defensive at first, but realizing that my contact worked directly in the PMO, and was a famous ‘good’ official from her state, she softened. There was a promise of impending reforms.
In a few months, I read a ‘reformed’ visa policy. No change. I called again, hoping persistence would pay. It did not. A year-and-half later, I remain hurt by my ‘expulsion.’ This great civilization prides itself on its hospitality. Perhaps to foreigners, who don’t need birth certificates. To its own, hospitality turns to a gut kick.
At last check, visa extension in India still requires a birth certificate, announcements of ‘Visa On Arrival’ notwithstanding.
Dr. Yogesh (Yogi) Agrawal was born in Moradabad, UP, in 1948. After getting his bachelor’s degree from IIT-Bombay, he moved to the U.S. in 1969 and was naturalized in 1988. He holds a Ph.D from UC Berkeley and runs a high-tech company he founded.