Wednesday, 27 July 2011

A brush with the law

If I made Haryana sound boring in my last post, I apologise for the misconception. My brief visit there ended up being one of the more eventful couple of days of my sojourn in India so far. Not really in a good way.

To begin with: this was pretty much my fault. I'm aware that it's a good idea to have your passport on you when travelling anywhere in India that involves staying overnight. I'm aware that a state close to the border with Pakistan has particular reason to be tight on security regulations. And I'm aware that things are particularly edgy at the moment given recent events in Mumbai.

However, despite being aware of all these things, I managed to leave my passport in my flat when we set out for Sirsa.

When we first arrived at the hotel in Hisar and I was asked for my passport and visa, I thought it would be nothing more than a minor inconvenience. After explaining that it was in Delhi, and being vouched for by the people I was travelling with (mostly Indian, all of highly respectable professional organisations), I left my contact details and promised to send my visa and passport numbers as soon as I was back in Delhi so they could fill in the forms. Feeling a bit silly for the oversight, I had a light dinner and headed up to my room to write Monday night's blog post and then headed to bed.

At six o'clock on Tuesday morning I was awoken by a loud banging at my door. Emerging into the corridor, dressed in a towel and with my hair in disarray as only my hair can manage, I was faced with the sight of no fewer than six men, headed by a slight but stern looking man in police uniform, who marched over the doorway and into my room. "Passport!" he demanded.

I tried to explain, as I had explained the previous night, that my passport was in Delhi. "No!" he responded, "you have to have!"

At this point my befuddlement started to give way to irritation, and I may have said something unhelpful like "I can't magic it out of thin air". Not the wisest course when faced with a provincial policeman in a bureaucratic country in a situation where clearly you have failed to follow the rules. His response was a curt "get ready to go!" Go where, I foolishly asked. "To police station!" he replied with evident relish, "get dressed, you go now!" I spluttered a bit. He made towards me and for a moment I thought he was going to drag me to the police station in my betowelled state.

At this point I started to be actually quite scared that I was going to be cast into some cell in provincial India and that the people I was working with on the project would have to bail me out. This would not be a positive step in establishing myself in India. I gave him every form of ID I had and he vanished with my driver's licence, leaving me to yell out something feeble and English like "this is disgraceful!" at his retreating back.

Rather shaken, I sat down for a few minutes before deciding that if I was liable to be dragged down the nick at any moment I should probably make myself respectable. In the shower I realised that I could probably access a scanned copy of my passport photo page that is saved on my personal drive at work. That took about 10 minutes, after which I proceeded downstairs with my open laptop held in front of me like a shield decorated with my own mugshot.

By the time I had done so and got myself downstairs, a crowd of about 12 people (I have no idea where they all came from!) was gathered around reception, most of them talking loudly about - so I gathered from the looks I received - me. There were, happily enough, no further threats to throw the book at me, and with the help of one of my Indian colleagues I was able to persuade them to let me go with strict instructions to send through a scanned copy of my visa page as soon as I was back in Delhi (this I did first thing this morning, though this was not enough to stop the local police making several calls on my colleagues who had remained behind in Haryana, who of course were entirely unable to help them).

Well, lesson learned: never leave home without your passport if you are a foreigner in India. On one level I find it hard to be angry with these guys, even though they overreacted so badly. No doubt their forms are examined by their superiors and they will get in deep trouble if there are anomalies. And as I said, there are good reasons why security issues are to be taken particularly seriously in this part of the world.

But on another level, I feel hurt, angry and frustrated. Hurt because it was drummed into me so forcefully that, at a fundamental level, for many Indians I am an outsider who may be tolerated, but not trusted. Angry because the number of people in this world who can wake me up at 6 am and not make me angry can be counted on the fingers of one hand, and because of the harassment suffered by my innocent co-travelers as a result of my carelessness. And frustrated because, for Pete's sake, there are enough real problems in this country that would make far better targets of so much police time and energy than a foreigner - one who is in clearly reputable company and who has been vouched for by upstanding Indian citizens - who has temporarily mislaid his passport.

Still, I survived without incarceration and am safely back in Delhi. Hopefully a little bit wiser and probably a little less naive about the realities of living in India. I guess in the end that is no bad thing.


Jacks said...

Eek! How very scary. I'm glad you're okay and that it was sorted out. Someone was taken off a bus yesterday right in front of me, just outside Paddington Green station, by two plain clothes police officers. I think he looked like a wanted person, but how the officers knew this, and whether they knew it or not before they got on the bus, I couldn't tell. He looked very surprised, and I was really worried, almost enough to get off the bus. The policemen had ID and everything, and were being very polite, but you just don't expect it in London.

Anj said...

Dearie me! On the other hand, you haven't properly lived in a place until you've been duffed up by the coppers for no good reason...

Kay in India said...

There's a good possibility the cop was trying to scare you into giving him a few thousand rupees. I always travel with passport copies, but one of the advantages I have [due to being of Nepali origin] is that no one asks for my passport. I just travel with my pan card, they take one look at my name, and think I'm just another Indian person.

Chris said...

Yes, I wondered at the time whether I should be giving him money. But when I took my wallet out to give him the cards he didn't seem terribly interested in the cash!

I envy you not attracting this kind of attention. But then, all I have to do is make sure I have the thing on me in the first place!