BANGKOK, Thailand, 10 January 2016
Currently, Tibetans living in India who come back after a visit abroad are required to have a so-called “return visa”. This is because the Indian government consider Tibetans as technically foreigners, with no status and no rights for Indian citizenship or passport. Tibetans travel on an identity certificate — popularly known as a “yellow book” — issued by the Indian government.
But applying for the return visa is definitely not as easy as it sounds.
Tibetans seeking a return visa to return to India have to complete a lengthy Indian visa application form online, print it, then bring it to a visa processing agent along with other necessary photos and documents.
Just to start with, the visa website could be browsed only in Firefox (as if Safari, Chrome and others are not browsers). And this is 21st century and India is supposed to be a global IT giant!
Some parts of the visa application form are clear and ask for information that one would expect. Others are obscure and confusing — as if to encourage errors which can result in your application being immediately rejected. My application form was rejected for one of those reasons, which was not at all clear to me.
First, what I needed was a “Return Visa”, but this choice is not even available in the drop-down menu of the online application. The closest choice available was the “Entry Visa”, so I chose that. I printed out the application and took it to the office of IVS Global in Bangkok, the agency that processes visa for India.
Tourist visa, or a return visa?
The staff there, seeing the “Entry Visa” choice, rejected my application outright, saying I need a “Tourist Visa”.
My explanation that I am a Tibetan born in India — and that I don’t need a tourist visa but a return visa so that I could go back and live in India — was not accepted. I was then asked to meet another staff (a young woman with a sharp tongue who seemed to be the “boss” at the centre). She also said that I needed to apply for a tourist visa, and pointed to my previous Indian visa, where the visa type was a “T” for tourist.
I repeated that I am not a tourist, but going back to India to live. I also told her that the application had other categories that were not relevant to me, such as “Purpose of Visit”. Then there is “Have you ever visited India” and the “Address you stayed in India” section. Since this is mandatory, it begs the question why do I need to say that I have visited the country in which I was born! But I still had to just like any tourist would.
“You could have chosen “Social” or any other option. You need to apply for a tourist visa,” the lady told me. “To have it done by us, it will cost you 175 Baht, passport photos 200 Baht, 310 Baht for visa processing at IVS.” [total 685 Baht, or India rupees 1,370]
These and other things reflect an attitude that is not very welcoming from a country which aims to promote tourism to “Incredible India” and create millions of jobs. (Even Singapore, which is a tiny city, attracts more tourists per year than India, not to speak of other popular tourist destinations like Thailand which receives over 29 million tourists per year compared to India’s 8 million).
Here are some of the documents Tibetans need while applying for a return visa:
1. Application form (apply online at www.IndianVisaOnline.gov.in)
2. Two colour photos size 2 inch x 2 inch with ONLY white background. A photo of 350 pixels by 350 pixels with ONLY white background is required separately on your desktop to upload with the form. Like surprises all the time in India, be surprised if you don’t have this photo ready while applying online. But what’s refreshing is that you can save the partially-filled application and complete it later with the photo, or do the rest later with a code that needs to be saved to access the same form later when you are ready.
3. Two photocopies of the first and last page of the yellow book.
4. One photocopy of the Thai visa.
5. Original yellow book valid for minimum of 6 months, with two blank pages for visa.
Clearly, requirements are many, and highly specific.
However, Tibetans can apply for the return visa while in India. The process at the Tibetan offices would not take more than 20 minutes, literally. One could verify all the documents at the Welfare Office, fill the forms there, bring that to the Tibetan security office nearby, and get their approval. Then the Indian section starts, to apply online, and go through the similarly arduous, exhausting and confusing form.
Many of the fields are not clear, and sometimes, misspelt and are not correct. For instance, you will have to click on “Tibetian origin”. [Yes, “Tibetian”, not Tibetan].
(Efficiency is also not the strong point of Indian local authorities in charge of handling these permits. Delaying has become a part of the culture, and is almost a religious ritual. For example, whenever we go to hand-deliver our return visa application to the local police station who have to verify our local registration certificate (RC), or the stay permit, the first thing they will always say is “Come Back Tomorrow”!)
A clearly printed “Return visa” is then issued by the local Police chief’s FRO office (in short, SP Office). On reading the page closely, it’s written “Only two Return Visas permitted in a year” — that’s only twice per year!
In addition to all this, there is a thing called “exit permit” for Tibetans who need to leave for more than two weeks. What purpose this serves is questionable, but the process is as complex and tedious as the return visa.
India is a beautiful place, but the Indian bureaucracy still has a long way to go if India wants to make it easier for everyone who is living there, including the Tibetans. And even more so, if it wants to attract foreign tourists and businesses and help India catapult and take a leap amongst the more developed nations in the region. If it fails, it will only hurt India itself, especially the youth and the poorer section of India, which would benefit from an India that is more welcoming and friendly towards all visitors, not just Tibetans. India certainly does have the potential, but it needs to get its act together, and needs more awareness, which the article like this is aimed at raising.
About the author
Lobsang Wangyal lives in McLeod Ganj, and edits the Tibet Sun website.
More articles by Lobsang Wangyal on Tibet Sun.