A visa, a vote and realities

Friday, 11 April 2014 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

“I have been to England so many times! But that is no consideration when it comes to visa formalities at the embassy. The number of questions they ask you is unbelievable! How much money do you earn, how much do you spend in a month? You have to answer all kinds of trick questions and then await a password to proceed to the next stage. My computer knowledge is only basic. After all I am only a housewife! This process is so taxing and so appalling!” The elderly lady was indignant. Her aging face turned dark with anger at the memory of the humbling experience. A protected childhood, educated at a prestigious Christian girls’ school in Colombo, early marriage to an up-and-coming young man from a “good’ family , servants, connections; to be subjected to such an impersonal inquisition by a foreign agency was undoubtedly harrowing for a Sri Lankan woman of that background. Her husband is associated with the Opposition now, but before he was powerful. Most of her travel had been during those ‘good old days’. “Those days the Embassy would send my passport home with the visa stamped on it .When my son Ujith was at the London School of Economics we visited him twice a year. He was very bright, topped the batch, just like N.M. Perera. Now he is a manager at a big international Hedge Fund there. There are so many Englishmen reporting to him. This time I only want to go to London for his wife Shalini’s confinement.” Among the others at the small party was a middle-aged Sri Lankan lawyer domiciled in Australia. He was a “dual” citizen having retained his Sri Lankan citizenship. Raising his left hand to show the little finger discoloured with an indelible ink mark, he asked the lady, “Do you see this ink mark? It was put there when I went to vote at the recent Provincial Council elections. At the election booth they put this ink blob on the little finger of every voter. Our own Government assumes that if they don’t put such a mark on the voters they will come back under another identity and attempt to vote again. When our own Government does not trust our integrity why would a foreign visa officer assume that integrity in us?” This conversation is not untypical at such social gatherings. Sri Lankans who travel overseas are invariably subjected to a gruelling regime of assessment. Many of them are genuine travellers with no intention whatsoever of violating their visa conditions. Nevertheless, they have to undergo this indignity as a kind of vicarious liability on account of their fellow countrymen’s record of blatant violations of their visas. Absolute hypocrisy The point made by the Sri Lankan lawyer from Australia is telling for both its depiction of a reality as well as the absolute hypocrisy latent in that reality. In almost every interaction of our Government with its people there is an inherent display of a deep going mistrust of the governed. A person cannot vote without an ugly blot of ink forced on his finger. There is almost no transaction a citizen may undertake with his Government without first presenting his Identity Card, sometimes merely to obtain a form at a place like the Registrar of Motor Vehicles. To an outside observer it will appear as if the country is full of terrorists, criminals or at the least, con-men. They are unworthy of any trust or respect. It is a culture where a person is considered invalid unless backed with an identity card, a character certificate from an MP, a Grama Sevaka’s endorsement or even a powerful name to be dropped. On his own account, a citizen amounts to nothing. But so used to this treatment they are that there is very little resistance from the public. Uglier and sinister reality But behind that reality there is an uglier and a sinister reality. What in actuality is the quality of those persons who constitute or speak for the Government which is demanding that the people establish their credentials at every turn? Are those who have a stranglehold on the Government known for their law abiding ways? Are they men who truly respect the meaning of a free vote? It is difficult to accept the morality of rulers many of whom, if not the majority, are thought of as having committed election offences themselves? It is no secret that some of the big names in the Government are associated with not only small scale election law violations but in fact violations that offended the right to vote of entire provinces in the past. And then there is yet a third reality, a sad but perhaps a fundamental one. Is it not possible that the two realities referred to earlier, the distrust shown by an untrustworthy Government, are creations of this third but less obvious reality? When it comes to the need to demand validation from each and every person our own Government’s actions seem to run parallel with the demands of foreign visa officers. Are they both reacting to something they perceive all around them? Perhaps as they say a Government knows its people best! Pervasive invalidation We can only point out the pervasive invalidation that is prevalent in our society. An individual in this country needs to have his identity confirmed and his authenticity affirmed at every turn. Without that he will be deemed a liar or a ghost. Even after all that authentication, if he is not “well-connected” family wise or politically, most doors will still remain closed for him. Given these social realities, whether we can hope for something better is only a matter of speculation. As a postscript I can report that the lady who was so insulted about the visa procedure at the British Embassy obtained her visa although it is not certain whether she was in London in time for the birth of her grandchild. The lawyer went back to Australia and I guess he still carries the ink mark on his finger, announcing an exercise of a democratic right in the country of his birth. (The writer is an Attorney-at-Law and a freelance writer.)

Recent columns