When opportunity knocks on your door, you grab it with both hands. Be it a big responsibility that would earn you respect and recognition, or an idea that would lead to a promotion, or just a simple trip that has the potential to transform your future — you seize it.
But what if there is a big roadblock called “passport” standing between you and your opportunity? What do you do?
Well, as I found, you suffer if you happen to be a Kashmiri Pandit — decades after you have suffered the brutality of the exodus from the Valley because the Indian government seemingly continues to treat you with some sort of contempt — as if you are an alien to this country.
It is as if once uprooted, now you always have to prove that you have your roots in this country.
But seriously, what do you do? As any sane person would suggest "Grit your teeth and get the damn thing made", which is exactly what I decided to do because a work trip required it.
After all, how difficult can filling an application online, standing in a queue, getting all your documents verified and receiving a booklet be? How difficult can it be to prove that you are indeed 'you' and no alien from Asgard or some blood-thirsty vampire from New Orleans?
Very, I found, if you are living in India — and more so if you are apparently a Kashmiri Pandit born in the state of Jammu and Kashmir.
How difficult can it be to get a passport? Very, I found, if you are a Kashmiri Pandit. (Photo: Twitter)
The passport problem
Recently, I found myself standing in a queue at a Passport Seva Kendra (PSK). I was there for what everyone calls “an appointment”, something you get when you need to get a passport.
I was in a hurry to get a passport — when opportunity knocks on your door, you answer quickly — and I’d applied under the Tatkal category, which got me an appointment the very next day I submitted my form. So, there I was, with all my documents, standing in a queue just to get a chance to prove to the passport officials that I was 'me' and hoping they'd be convinced enough to issue me the document.
Passport rules have changed and in fact eased dramatically since Sushma Swaraj took control of the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA). She has made the process speedier, taking into account real people and their very real problems. She has indeed, as multiple reports state, fixed the passport system to a great extent.
So, when I arrived at the PSK, I was hoping that everything would be smooth and the process, barring the queue, of course, would go off without a hitch. I had all my documents right. But to my dismay, instead of being issued a token number, which determines your sequence for everything there, I was asked to see the DPO, who was in charge of the place and supposed to take the final call in case there was a dispute or confusion.
So, what was the confusion?
In this case, apparently I was. The reason why I was being escorted to the DPO’s office was the simple fact that I was born in Jammu — and hence, couldn’t apply for a passport in the Tatkal category. Or so they said.
The Tatkal passport column in the FAQs section of the government of India’s passport portal says – “Mandatory Pre Police Verification cases such as Indian citizens of J&K and Nagaland would also need additional processing time.” Nowhere does it say that citizens born in J&K cannot apply for a passport in the Tatkal category. It only talks of people who are residing in J&K. Not people who are born there. And yet, I found myself in the DPO’s office, deliberating if there was a way out of this entire situation. His solution — apply in the normal category.
Since I didn’t have much of a choice, I caved in and went outside to stand in a long queue — again — hoping that at least this time, someone would let me have my fair shot at getting the document.
No such luck.
My passport application was approved — but not on the basis of "post-police verification mode" that is faster and is available to almost all those who submit Aadhaar card. I had also submitted my Aadhaar card, but my application was approved on "pre-police verification mode" that is slower and takes more time.
You (the government too) need to understand that when I left J&K, I was a one-year-old baby. We, my family, like thousands of other Kashmiri Pandits, were forced to leave the place. Since then, I have not lived in that state. Yet, the Indian government apparently considers me, who doesn't even have any memories of the place my family left behind, a resident of J&K first and an Indian citizen later.
Isn't that cruel?
First of all, the government’s passport portal says nothing about issuing Tatkal passports to residents of J&K, except for the fact that a mandatory police verification would take place before the passport is dispatched (fine), which is unlike the citizens of Nagaland.
Secondly, if at all Section 370, as a knowledgeable passport officer pointed out, applies, it would hold good for residents of J&K, not me — I am not a resident of the state per se. If at all, the load of documents that I submitted are proof enough that I haven’t lived in the state for over 25 years!
Third, if my name gave an impression that I was indeed a resident since I am a Kashmiri Pandit, it is even more ludicrous that I was being denied a passport under the Tatkal category apparently because of my ethnic roots.
The exodus of the Pandits took place nearly 30 years ago and since then, people from the community have peacefully resided in various parts of the country. Some are even serving in various top-level governmental positions.
The government says we are Indians, we say we are Indians — and yet, when it comes to this critical document, we are seemingly seen as a red flag category.
Why? I am not demanding any special provisions here. All I’m asking is to be treated fairly and at an equal footing with all other citizens of the country.
All I am saying is, have the same rules and regulations for me — a Pandit or any other citizen of J&K — that you have for other citizens. Is that demanding too much? Perhaps. But isn't that my right as a citizen of this great nation?
I was born in J&K. But my family was forced to leave when I was just one. Many Kashmiri Pandits share exactly the same state. (Representative photo: Reuters)
And finally, if it’s just the place that is an issue, would the same rules apply to a baby born in Jammu or Srinagar, with his or her ethnic roots based in Andhra Pradesh, for example? Would a baby born to Marathi or Tamil parents in any city of J&K be subjected to the same discretion? My guess is — no.
My point being
As far as my application was concerned, a token was just the beginning of my day at the PSK. There are three counters at the PSK where your documents and application are scanned, verified — and, if you get lucky, your plea is granted. It took me some three run-ins at the first two counters each and at least half a dozen declarations regarding my place of current and permanent address and, more importantly, my stay outside J&K to convince the passport officials that I was authentic enough to be granted a passport.
The passport officials were all courteous — none of this was their fault. But it is the system that is to be blamed. The rules are vague and loosely worded, so anyone can interpret them in 10 different ways. My point here being, passport rules might have been simplified, but for some of us, the struggle hasn’t ended yet.
It is as if the Indian state believes we, Kashmiri Pandits, are Indians later and residents of J&K first — even 30-odd years after we were forced out of our homes.
Just how callous is that?