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Orange Sassport

Orange Sassport

Forty years ago when I acquired a passport, I was very proud of it. Proud because I obtained it from the same Bhopal Passport Office, immediately after it was inaugurated by the then External Affairs Minister, Atal Bihari Vajpayee. Incidentally, I reported the inaugural function for the English daily  The Hitavada. I was also proud for another reason, as the passport was considered the ultimate certificate of my Indian citizenship. 

At that time, there was no other document which could rival the passport. I used it for a variety of purposes, except to travel. The passport lapsed without even a single visa stamped on it. The only stamp on it was that it was not valid for travel to South Africa, where apartheid was in existence, and the newly-formed Israel.

In the mid-nineties when I received an invitation for an all-expense-paid fortnight-long visit to the reunified Germany, courtesy editor HK Dua, I did not have a passport. I needed to get one made in three days. That is when the lapsed passport came to my rescue. It made easier the promise of KP Fabian, who was a joint secretary in the External Affairs Ministry, to help me get a passport.

Fabian, who retired as our Ambassador to Italy, asked me to check whether the “Emigration Clearance Not Required (ECNR)” was stamped on the passport. “Sometimes, by mistake or oversight, it is not stamped forcing the passport-holder to experience some inconvenience”. 

The first thing I checked in the brand-new passport was whether ECNR was stamped. Since I was a post-graduate, I was certainly entitled to ECNR. Emigration clearance was required only for those who were not matriculates. 

This was to help them not to fall into the trap of fake recruitment firms. The emigration officer would check the papers and ensure that they were in order before letting the passport-bearer to fly out of the country. A graduate is supposed to have the capability to make his own verification of the papers. That is why they were given the ECNR stamp.

Thus the introduction of the ECR stamp on the passport was an ameliorative step. Nobody, except the emigration staff and foreign employers, knew about a person’s ECR status. 

The Narendra Modi government has recently announced two passport reforms which have far-reaching consequences. The last page of the passport has some details like the name of father or legal guardian, name of mother, name of spouse, address, old passport number and file number. This page will be deleted from the passport.

The argument given is that all such details are with the emigration authorities. Also, the address may change during the period the passport remains valid. The claim is a cover-up. The idea is to deprive the passport of its status as a proof of identity. The government wants the Aadhar card as the ultimate proof of identity. It also wants all the Indian passport holders working in the Gulf and other countries to have the Aadhar card as their valid id.

In other words, it is a subtle push for Aadhar, although the Supreme Court is yet to pronounce its verdict on whether the biometric card is an infringement of a citizen’s right to privacy, which is otherwise inviolable except in extraordinary situations. For instance, a person making a time bomb in his bedroom cannot claim that his privacy is breached when the police knocks on the door!

Even more bizarre is the decision taken by a committee of government officials to introduce orange-coloured passports for those who require emigration clearance. There are at present two types of passports, coloured blue and maroon. The blue one is given to ordinary citizens, while the maroon one is given to those with diplomatic status like external affairs ministry officials, ministers, MPs, MLAs etc. At almost all international airports, passengers with diplomatic passports are asked to stand in a separate queue for visa clearance.

Those who have maroon passports will have to surrender their passports once they retire from service or lose the diplomatic status they enjoyed. They must acquire an ordinary passport soon after they cease to be “diplomats”. In fact, they can’t use the diplomatic passport after they no longer hold the diplomatic post. Of course, there are also emergency passports and limited-period passports, issued in extraordinary situations.

It is difficult to believe that the idea of orange-coloured passports for those who are not matriculates does not have the approval of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party. The decision is worse than Modi’s midnight madness called Demonetisation of Rs 500 and Rs 1000 notes. 

The Aadhar card is promoted on various grounds like: 1. It provides the citizen an identity card. 2. It helps the government to transfer subsidy on gas, kerosene, foodgrains etc directly into a person’s bank account. 3. It minimises corruption. 4. It makes implementation of government programmes easier. 5. It plugs misuse of mid-day meal. There is some validity in these arguments.

However, I have not come across a single logical reason for introducing the new colour. The government claims that it would be able to provide better emigration clearance to such passport holders. It also says it will increase the aspiration levels of the passport holders. Those who have orange passports would like to have blue passports for which they would study and get a degree. How farcical can arguments become!

Is there any country in the world which has differently-coloured passports for its citizens? Not a single country has this two-colour system. It is very similar to the two-glass system prevalent in some areas in the country where people belonging to Scheduled Castes are served tea or coffee in separate glasses. There is a BJP MP who proudly claims that he carries his own glass to the houses of upper caste party leaders to have water or beverages like tea. He justifies the practice in the name of tradition.

Orange is a unique colour in many respects. It is the national colour of the Netherlands because its royal family owns the principality of Orange. Airport service providers, sanitary workers etc wear orange-coloured vests to attract public attention. Orange is one of those colours that really stands out, even at a distance. It seems to shout, “Hey, look at me!”

Now imagine an Indian orange passport-bearer standing in the queue at an international airport. Everyone would notice his orange passport. Suppose an Indian working in the US is taking his domestic worker to the US. Both are in the same queue because they came by the same flight. One has a blue passport and the other an orange passport because the worker is barely literate.

It is an announcement to the world, “Hey, look at me! I am not a matriculate!” People will see all those holding orange passports as second-class citizens of India. What are the advantages that accrue to the person because he has an orange passport. Nothing but public ridicule.

What is the most important possession a person has? It is not the properties he owns but it is the dignity that he holds. When Mahatma Gandhi reached South Africa as a legal clerk in a firm owned by a Gujarati Muslim, he found his dignity questioned. He found that pavements were separate for the blacks and the whites. 

As an Indian and not white, he was expected to use the pavements meant for the blacks. He was thrown off a train at the Pietermaritzburg Railway Station because he rode in a First Class coach. I was lucky to travel to Pietermaritzburg in the same coach Gandhi used along with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh. 

Gandhi wrote a letter arguing that Indians like him were educated and belonged to upper castes and they should be allowed to use the pavements and facilities meant for the whites. It is a different matter that he did not question the system of apartheid at that time. Why? 

Because he went from a country where for generations people were not treated as equals. Apartheid was another version of the caste system prevalent in India. That is why he did not find it reprehensible. Those who have doubts about the assertions made here are advised to read Gandhi’s autobiography  My Experiments with Truth

The orange passport-bearers will realise that they are not equals to the blue passport-bearers. Do they deserve the kind of treatment the government of India plans for them? There is no clear statistics of the number of Indians serving in the Gulf. There could be at least 50 lakh Indians there, mostly from the state of Kerala. An overwhelming majority of them are labourers, artisans, masons, electricians, carpenters, drivers, cleaners, port workers, cleaning staff and the like.

Every single Riyal or Darham they earn is remitted to India through a bank. Their remittances form a significant portion of the foreign exchange reserves that India has at any given point of time. Unlike them, the moneyed, educated non-resident Indians, who are courted and pampered by those in power, use their money to invest in the European, Asian and American countries where they live. So, who serves the Indian interests better? The answer is obvious.

Yet, the NRIs in the Gulf are looked down upon. Many of the benefits that are given to the rich NRIs and People of Indian Origin in the US, who throng the Madison Square in New York to hear Modi mouth inanities, are denied to those who lead “goat life” in the Gulf, as described by the Malayalam novelist Benyamin. There was a time when Indian workers in the Gulf did not have much difficulty in getting jobs. Now they have to compete with those from Pakistan, the Philippines, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka etc.

There are many Indians who hold high posts in the Gulf, though they are not much educated. All of them will be exposed when they produce orange passports. This is in conformity with what the ruling party leaders think. 

The BJP has introduced in some states a law under which only educated persons can contest elections to panchayats and municipalities, though there is no educational qualification required to contest to the Assemblies and Parliament. What is the single-most important programme of the government?

It is the Skill India programme. Yes, it was initiated by the previous UPA government. How many people know that the NDA government has reduced the allocation for education? Instead, it has increased the funds for the Skill programme. It is to encourage people to improve their skills. A carpenter will be given better skills as a carpenter. A blacksmith will be given training to improve his skills.

If a person gets education, he will be able to choose a career of his choice. A carpenter can become an IAS officer or a banker or an MP or a minister. But if he chooses carpentry at a young age, he will remain a carpenter all his life. If KR Narayanan was not encouraged to study, he would not have gone to the London School of Economics and eventually become the President of India.

No, I am not against people acquiring skills. The point is that education is more important than skills. A driver who can speak good English, can use the Google map better and can explain to his customer about the touristic importance of a particular area will command greater respect and get a heavier tip than a person who knows just driving. To return to the passport, there was a time when the lower castes had to hang a spittoon from their neck so that their saliva did not fall on the road. They also were not supposed to come anywhere near the upper castes.

Worse, they had to carry a bell to warn upper castes so that the Dalit’s shadow did not fall on them. When Swami Vivekananda went to pray at the Kodungalloor temple in Kerala in 1892, he was not allowed inside. Why? The rule was that a person whose caste identity was not known was not allowed inside the temple. He waited for three days but he was not allowed. He did not want to say that he was a Kayastha! That is why he called Kerala a “lunatic asylum”. 

The orange passport is a reintroduction of the same old system whereby the lower castes were segregated. What the BJP government does not realise is that it will be exposing tens of millions of Indians to public ridicule by forcing them to hold the orange passport. Is this the New India that Narendra Modi has promised? Is this what he has learnt by travelling all over the world at state expense? What a shame, Mr Prime Minister!

ajphilip@gmail.com

(Published on 22th January 2018, Volume XXX, Issue 04)