My article in DECCAN HERALD on International Women’s day about my experience at a passport office.
Passport to patriarchy
Salman Khurshid’s words flash on the Passport Seva website: “To deliver passport services to citizens in a timely, transparent, more accessible, reliable manner and in a comfortable environment through streamlined processes and committed, trained and motivated workforce.”
I, along with my 70-year-old parents, arrived in Jodhpur expecting a professional experience after the implementation of new procedures with the Passport Seva Project. I had little idea that this Passport Seva Kendra has an unwritten rule — women are to be in the custody of their husbands when married.
Since the Udaipur’s District Passport Cell has shifted to Jodhpur district (for some hazy bureaucratic or political reasons), it has caused inconvenience to all the townships and villages around Udaipur. When even a small town like Jhunjhunu has a Passport Seva Kendra, the reason for the passport cell of the large district of Udaipur and all its adjoining areas to shift 248 km away, remains unanswered.
The renewal process is to be done in four stages. The first one is to get a token after having your documents checked by the passport executive. Young officials sit in a row checking the required documents diligently. One such young executive checked our papers. My parents’ documents were in place, and so were mine. Except the fact that I had chosen not to change my name and address after marriage.
My husband’s name is included in my current passport. I was carrying the original marriage certificate and his passport copy with my name included in it. The problem, the executive pointed, was — why was I not changing my permanent address to my husband’s address in my new passport? I told him I didn’t want to. All my ID proofs (driving licence, Adhaar card, passport, voter ID, ration card) have my permanent address as my parents’ address since birth.
The fact that my work is based in Udaipur, I am the Honorary Wildlife Warden of Udaipur district, the only child of my parents — were ridiculous reasons, according to the executive, for me to stay in Udaipur. He asked me where my husband lived and why he hadn’t accompanied me. On being informed that he travels for work often and doesn’t have a permanent address, he asked why I didn’t stay at my sasural then. He refused to pass my passport renewal application; although one of his colleagues said that it shouldn’t be a problem to continue with my address, as it was the same as in my current passport.
But I was sent to another ‘madam’, who told me that I needed to produce a ‘legal declaration’ — an affidavit on stamp paper from my husband as a ‘no objection document’, giving reasons to my continuing with my own address. I grudgingly produced the same. My passport agent had warned me of this problem, but I’d brushed him aside thinking that he was still living in the Dark Ages. He had nonetheless made sure that I carried the affidavit.
But that was not all. I was then taken to another ‘sir’, her senior, to present my case. I stood in his office like an accused witnessing the examination of evidences against her. A man of few words, sir, silently went through the papers and gave his nod of assent. Another executive present in the office pointed that if I’d shown the affidavit at the first level, it would’ve saved me time.
I told him about the tone in which the executive had spoken to me. Here the silent sir looked up at me agitated and said, “You cannot say that! They are not supposed to speak ‘properly’ with you!” This time I nodded my assent and walked out. Of course, the ‘committed, trained and motivated workforce’ was not supposed to speak properly with an applicant.
While I was waiting for my passport to arrive, I checked the list of affidavits required on the passport office’s official website. I couldn’t find anything that spoke about a declaration from the husband for the wife to continue with her own address after marriage. The only affidavit related to marriage was in the case of marital discord, separation or for those without a formal divorce decree.
So, if it is not required by law, why has the Jodhpur Passport Seva Kendra taken up the moral policing? I walked out after clearing the four levels of verification. Of course, the passport office can’t verify my identity by my current passport alone, issued by the passport office itself. A lady collected my file and extended feedback forms for the passport ‘seva’ saying, “You have to fill them.” I fidgeted with the pen for a while and then walked out. There was at least one place where I could exercise my right in the passport office — I didn’t have to fill them.
This is yet another example of the patriarchal attitudes deeply entrenched in our systems. When the young executive Rakesh ji questioned why I was not staying at my sasural, I asked him if I didn’t have the rights of an individual in this country simply because I was a woman. Was I cattle to be passed from one master to another? He told me with a smug smile, “Think what you may of yourself, but that’s what the law says.”
To think of, at least there’s acceptance of stray cattle on our roads. But not of ‘stray’ women. Not in the Jodhpur Passport Seva Kendra at least.