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Friday, 19 February 2010


“No one needs to worry about India’s nuclear arsenal. If they ever chose to launch a strike it would take them a month to get the paperwork ready.” – A tourist hoping to extend his visa in Delhi.

On all my travels I’ve only paid bribes when there’s no other option, I’m happier to sit things out than reach for the wallet. People that know me will say it’s because I’m tight, but I like to think I’m setting a moral precedent. My case here in India has been too high profile for anyone to dare ask for baksheesh and I certainly haven’t felt that offering it would help resolve things. So famous is the “Andy Case”, that this month, I’ve been on the front cover of the Rajasthan Times of India more often that Shah Ruhk Kahn, Bollywood’s answer David Beckham, whose latest film in which he plays a Muslim accused of terrorism, has provoked riots in cinemas.

Bribes work very differently in India than in Africa. In Africa you pass some notes to get a cop to drop his beef against you. The cause for dispute vanishes and you are on your way. Here, bribes work the opposite way. Instead of bribing someone to turn a blind eye, you tip them so they’ll pay attention to your case, actually deal with it and not to shove it sideways into oblivion.

In Africa there is softness about the process too. You’re getting shafted, and everybody knows it, but everyone also knows that the situation will work itself out in the end. Here in India it’s harsher. Procedure is king, regardless of the human consequences. There’s no empathy at all. Most minor bureaucrats, the foot soldiers of the state have no real power and live in mortal fear of making a mistake, a risk made all the more real by the fact that most know enough to know they don’t understand the full scope of what they do. Saying yes is a big risk, but even saying no could be risky, so the best thing is to sideline everything but the most straightforward. Search diligently through the paperwork to find a reason why it can’t be dealt with now or here. African cops risk their jobs by letting you off the hook, here they are taking a risk by dealing with you.

I thought my newspaper cuttings would be a help. But I’ve learnt that showing them is really counterproductive. “Oh God!” I see them thinking as they’ve stared eyes agog at the inch thick pile of print outs “Making any decision about this guy is way too risky. Park him, Pass him on, but don’t finalise anything.”

This decision-avoiding attitude has now become even more important for the front line bureaucrat as the fear of terrorists posing as tourists grips the nation. Imagine you let this guy do what he wants and he turns out to be a terrorist. The government has instigated new visa rules to catch these terrorist miscreants out, but of course they only serve to make life difficult for genuine visitors, (shorter stays, no return within 2 months, no change of purpose, no extension...). The changes are badly communicated to India’s embassies, who misinform travellers, who end up screwed.

A Scotsman moving to India was told by the embassy in Scotland he had to come on a tourist visa and then change it to residency. Here he is told this is impossible once in India, and has to fly back to Scotland to start again. He knows he’ll be told the same thing when he goes back.

A French woman spends 2 days extending her visa by 4 days. An English couple are told they don’t have the papers to take their surrogate child home. A Manchunian tennis coach is driven to quit his job because extending the visa is practically impossible.

It’s as depressing as Lunar House in Croydon, the UK’s immigration centres for the South East, which I used to visit when I worked undercover for a documentary that exposed abuses by officers in the Immigration support service. Full of people just trying to live their lives, dehumanised and told they can’t.

The visa rules are just one aspect of India’s ineffectual security measures which will never have an impact on the sort of terror threat this country is facing. Every government building has a metal detector gateway. Uniformed police make sure you don’t walk around it, but it’s no problem when your pocket knife triggers it, as long as you’ve walked through it.

At Jaisalmer House, India’s Lunar House, my mum alerts police to an unattended bag twice. The first cop ignores her, the second one responds with a shrug.

In Connaught Place, Delhi’s focal point, extra police have been drafted in to patrol the area. Looking for an internet cafe, I ask one where Sector N is. It turns out it’s round the next corner, but he has no idea where it is. So if the order came over the radio to apprehend a suspect in Sector N or evacuate Sector N because of bomb alert, how long is it going to take him to react? That’s assuming the batteries in his radio have enough charge to last the shift.

Anywhere in the world, these types of police-state security measures have a tiny chance of being effective. They are never going to stop anyone but the dumbest terrorist. OK, the type of village yokels who sign up to being a jihadist suicide bomber probably aren’t any sharper than the average Indian village cop, but the people that indoctrinate them and run their missions are, and they are the ones police have to outsmart.

The only way to defend a nation against this kind of terrorism is to make peace with your enemies. India and Pakistan are on the verge of talks, and the explosion in Pune (Poona) two days ago runs the risk of destabilising them, or at the very least skewing the agenda as politicians posture to show they are tough. Hopefully politicians on both sides will have the real courage needed to hold fast to the talks, or the perpetrators of this comparatively small blast will succeed in destabilising Indian peace far beyond the 11 fatalities caused by their explosion.

India has made life progressively harder for tourists since it fell out of love with the 70s hippy invasion. Smaller countries with less to offer have much higher numbers of inbound tourists. From my biased perspective, I’d say they’ve really taken a turn for the worst in the last few months; with these new visas rules, suspicion of tourists being undercover terrorists, and now the confirmation that it’s tourists that are being targeted in the attacks as much as Indians. I (deluded) believe the “Andy Case” is the symptom of the new vanguard of even less welcoming, even less accommodating India. A couple of British plane spotters were arrested yesterday for having “High tech equipment that allowed them hear airplane communications”, er... , that will be a VHF radio then. Let’s go to Thailand.

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