Passport and patriotism

Passports are a hateful token of the politicisation of a fractured world, symbolising the elevation of petty national sovereignty above universalism that explains Brexit. There’s a sense of utter finality, too, about the booklet I have just collected from India House in London for it will in all probability be my last passport. I said so casually to the cheerfully scruffy but very helpful consular assistant who was horrified. “You mustn’t say such things!” he exclaimed in Hindi, “and during the puja too in Kolkata!”


My old passport, which has now been cancelled although it could have run to mid-November, was also issued in London. India’s deputy high commissioner in Singapore was responsible for the one before. I had forgotten the man until half-way through a diplomatic occasion in another part of the world it suddenly dawned on me that he had once been my benefactor. Unusual for an Indian bureaucrat, he had been too polite to mention the debt. I say debt because in the bad old days before Maneka Gandhi’s plea established a citizen’s right to a passport, successive passport officers in India made one feel like a grovelling applicant for illicit favours. One incumbent hinted that a reciprocal gesture would not be amiss.


He dismissed my existing passport, also issued in London, as a document of convenience given only because the government in its compassion didn’t want to leave an Indian abroad unprotected. Now that I was back, my financial, educational, political, professional and social credentials would be scrutinised before deciding if I was a fit person for the President of the Republic of India to accept responsibility for me. The police, too, were on the take. Groups of them turned up night after night for free drinks and dinner at a Chinese restaurant whose owner and his family were waiting for passports to emigrate. Of course, there were and are many much more serious abuses by both the authorities and VIPs like the Indian tycoon who mistakenly pulled out his second passport, a Swiss one, at a five-star hotel reception. But those are beyond my ken.


My worst passport memory is from Dhaka’s dingy Lalbagh police station way back in 1965 when I had to pay several visits to ancestral Brahmanbaria in what was then East Pakistan. Deplaning in Dhaka, one had to rush to register at Lalbagh as the law demanded before boarding the Green Arrow train for Chittagong. There was always a pile of red India-Pakistan travel passports to be cleared, and the police officer on duty always shoved my blue passport to the bottom of the heap.

Each time he came to it, he would again put it last and continue with the red passports while I gnawed my nails in anxiety for fear of missing the train. Once I made so bold as to hesitantly draw his attention to my dilemma and received such a snarl and a shouted order that I retreated in terror. East Pakistan is now Bangladesh. The police registration requirement has gone. But has the mind behind the law, the attitude that shaped it, changed?


I once bumped into Mother Teresa wandering around Bangkok airport looking lost. Offering to help her check in, I asked if she had a white passport and she produced one that was red, explaining, “The Indian government has very kindly given me this diplomatic passport.” At the Air India counter, where I also checked in, she was, of course, instantly recognised, lionised and upgraded. Some time later, she appeared on the spiral stairs leading down from business — or first — class looking for me. She wanted to know what a white passport was. When I explained it was an official passport, she murmured, “Thank you. That will be very useful for my sisters who have to bring back medicines and things”, and went back to her business — or first class — abode.


I have often been asked in the 65 years that I have travelled continuously (not counting a family visit to Brahmanbaria in pre-passport 1949 when we all had single-sheet India-Pakistan travel papers) why I didn’t acquire a British passport. The answer isn’t any lofty patriotism. The answer is that I would have been embarrassed to plonk down the royal coat of arms (or the American eagle for that matter) on a third country’s immigration counter. It would have seemed like impersonation. My Indian passport has many disadvantages. But it’s me.


Being for 10 years, the new one will last out my lifetime.

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