“Hi! I was filling out your tourist visa application and got stuck on the relative question. I don’t have any relatives in India so what should I enter on the form?” I asked the customer service for rep from Travisa Outsourcing, the agency we have to use to apply for a visa to India.
“Just enter N/A”.
“Great. Ok, so my next question. Can I travel from Pakistan to India? I mean I won’t be flying direct from the States and I’ll be visiting family in Pakistan before I fly to India”. Given Pakistan and India’s volatile relationship, I wanted to be 100% sure I wouldn’t have any issues passing through the airport’s immigration line.
“Are you Pakistani?” she asked.
“Well yes. Ummm, actually no. Well I was born and raised in the States and my parents are U.S. citizens, but they immigrated from Pakistan” I said.
“Then you can’t apply for a tourist visa. You must complete a different visa application for a Pakistani,” she said in a matter of fact tone. She must get this question often.
“But I don’t understand. Why? I mean, I was BORN in the U.S. and my parents are not Pakistani citizens….”
She cut me off. “But your parents were born in Pakistan so you can’t fill out the visa application as an American”.
I didn’t speak for a couple of seconds. I thanked the lady for her time and hung up. I furiously did some online research to prove her wrong. That only made it worse. It clearly states on the Indian Visa website that the minimum processing time for a visa for anyone of Pakistani descent is six weeks. From other forums, I learned that it usually ends up taking closer to six months before you get an answer. The website also states, “You are requested to be patient and not make enquiries in this regard by phone, email, personal visit, fax or letters, which, due to constraints, we will not be able to respond to. You may rest assured that we will, on our own, pursue your case”. That is comforting.
Going to India was absolutely out of the question for us. There was no way we would wait half a year to learn whether or not we would be granted a visa from the Indian government. No thank you. I was pissed. Now we wouldn’t go to the Karni Mata temple (famous rat temple), see tigers at the Ranthambore National Park or take pictures of the exotic the Rajasthan landscape and its equally exotic people. The biggest blow however was not meditating at one of the ashrams in India.
The visa application process for the rest of you non-Pakistani visitors is still daunting. You must first complete an Indian Visa Application, which asks you detail questions about the citizenship and birthplace of your parents and grandparents (really?). You are asked about your level of education, your employment (if you’re a housewife you must tell them about your husband’s employment), what cities/towns you plan to visit in India, and the questions go on (ugh). Then you must scan a digital copy of your signature and passport size photograph onto the form. Then you must complete the Travisa Order form and affix a passport size photograph on the Indian Visa application. You of course need a passport that is valid for at least six months when applying for the visa (standard). Oh, and then you must provide proof of address by giving a utility bill or driver license. Now imagine what the visa application is like for someone like me, an American-Pakistani. My husband and I couldn’t even apply because India does NOT offer a tourist visa for Pakistani nationals. You can only apply for a business, student, or family visa.
In plain English, disclosing any links with India’s next-door neighbor triggers a long investigation and makes it nearly impossible for people like us to enter their country. The strict visa rule for Pakistani is a response to the devastating November 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai. One of the terrorist, David Headley, was a US citizen of Pakistani origin. He lied on the visa application by falsely stating his father’s name and his own previous name. Anyone planning an illegal activity of this kind will not be stopped by a difficult visa application process. I don’t blame India for taking extreme measures to protect its country, but I also think criminals will find an alternative route. In the end a stringent visa application process deters well-meaning visitors who want to explore the great country of India.
I was curious to see what process is like in the reverse for Indians wanting to enter Pakistan. Indians must have a valid passport for at least one year and may apply for a visit, transit or tourist visa. You must enter the country via Islamabad, Lahore or Karachi and complete the visa application and computer performa form. Absurdly, Indians must report for the Police registration within 24 hours of entering the country and prior to departure and arrival at each place to be visited in Pakistan. Also, you must give a copy of the National ID Card (Pakistan photo ID) of the Pakistani sponsoring or hosting you. The Pakistan visa application sounds less complicated than that of India however reporting your every move sounds like a nightmare.
Such barriers to entry do more harm than good in bridging the relationship between the two neighbors. However I am hopeful that India and Pakistan will mend their “cold war”. According to an article published by Times of India in May 2012, India and Pakistan have begun talks to relax the visa rules. Yay! Although Pakistan has delayed the agreement process, both countries hope to finalize the talks by the end of this year. So…. we might be able to go to India after all!! Just not this year.
Pakistan and India share the same history and have similar cultures, language and religion; it’s a shame that visa rules are keeping their people further apart. As a final message to all my Indian friends out there–I haven’t given-up on India, but, in the mean time, please don’t get married in India if you want me to attend..