My story revolves around love. A love that is forbidden and discouraged in a part of the world that is now India and Pakistan. India and Pakistan have a tension-filled history, complete with wars and mutual distrust.
While so-called ‘nationalists’ boast about the emotional and physical carnage, people like me – who dare to love the ‘enemy’ across the border and who want each country to admit its mistakes, – are termed as traitors.
After migrating to the US from Pakistan, I was awestruck by the equality and justice offered by this great land. I wasn’t known by my religion, cast or origin, but by my name, and my citizenship – American.
On a fall day in 2009, I received the letter I had been waiting for, from Whistling Woods, a film school near Mumbai. They had accepted me as a student for their Film Directing course. I was overjoyed. Filmmaking had always been my passion and after getting financially settled, I wanted to learn filmmaking at a place that had bred legends of cinema – Mumbai.
Off I headed to Travisa, the visa processing company, with my visa application and US passport. There were other Americans there as well, who were told to come pick their visas the same day or the next.
But when it came to me, the clerk looked at my passport and told me to step aside. Strange, I thought. After a short wait, I was told that I could not apply for an India visa on my US passport. “Sorry? I am a US citizen and that’s my country’s passport,” I said. “You are accepting the same passports of others”.
“No sir,” he replied. “You were born in Pakistan and in the eyes of the Indian government you are a Pakistani national, not a US citizen.” “How can you have different processes for nationals of the same country with the same passports?” I asked, shocked.
His reply shattered me further. “Sir, India does not allow us to accept US passports from US citizens born in Pakistan, unless they first renounce their Pakistan citizenship”.
“But I am a US national, and it is my right to be recognised and travel as one!”
“Sorry, you cannot apply for an India visa with this passport”.
A moment of truth and pain for me. My US passport, which looked exactly like any other US passport, was suddenly different due to my origin. I realised that as soon as the Indian government reads the word Pakistan on my passport, my name becomes David Headley for them. I don’t exist as a US citizen any more. Instead, I am equated with the dreaded criminal who ruthlessly created a web of deception and ran a criminal operation that ended in the tragic day of 26/11 in Mumbai. I become a terrorist suspect who cannot be allowed the freedom of travel in India that comes with a US passport.
I wondered whether they’d made this rule in error. Could it be changed if I called and informed the US Department of State about it? After all, weren’t they meant to facilitate travel by US citizens and ensure the protection of our rights in foreign territory? There are visa reciprocity agreements with foreign nations. How can India treat some US citizens (like me) differently than other US citizens given that the agreements between US and India do not exclude Indian or US nationals based on their ethnicity or origin?
After working through the maze of departments within the DOS, I was finally routed to the American Citizen Services and India Desk. They asked me to email them the details, which I did, expecting a quick resolution. Surely the all-powerful Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton would get Consular Affairs to immediately ask India to not discriminate against US citizens based on their origin and treat all Americans uniformly for visa applications?
My dream was short-lived. American Citizen Services told me that India has a right to deny my visa – to which I replied, of course, that that was not the problem. I would accept a denial on my US passport if I was put through the same process as any British, Irish, Italian, Arabic or other origin US citizen. As a US national, I wanted equality, and to be able to travel as a US national without my origin playing any part in that. It is the state department’s job to ensure that US citizens are not discriminated against. And yet, they told me: “We cannot make India look at you as an American”.
And there it was, the reality. I felt like an adopted child whose parents had just told him that they couldn’t stand up for him and make others see him as their son.
India rightfully took a stern stand against China’s discrimination against Indian citizens. In an interview to the ANI, External Affairs Minister S. M. Krishna said, “It has come to the notice of the government of India that China is issuing different visas to the people of Jammu and Kashmir. We are taking up the issue with the Chinese government,” he said. “We will tell them that visa related issue should be uniform, there should not be any discrimination among the Indian nationals while issuing visas.”
And yet, while implementing this origin-based visa rule on US citizens, India itself was engaged in the same kind of discrimination as China that it had protested against.
It is now 2013. The Indian government still views me, along with half a million other US citizens of Pakistani origin, as terrorists, as if we are all David Headley. The Indian government sees him as representing us – Headley, who wasn’t even born in Pakistan.
Collective punishment is deep rooted in the governing dynamics of India and Pakistan. Take any police case registered there; the police always raid the house of the accused and arrest all innocent relatives to pressurise the absconder. It is disheartening to see such counterproductive tactics making their way into the arena of international affairs. Suave, educated Indian diplomats being made to advance foreign policy as if they were local policemen.
Punishing all Pakistan-origin people for one person’s crime resolves nothing except walling off India’s vibrant society from the world. Thousands of Pakistani-origin US nationals have visited India, without ever being accused or found guilty of harming India in any way. Yet those thousands of goodwill ambassadors are all seen as David Headleys.
Even those who renounce their Pakistan citizenship, or are born US citizens to Pakistani origin parents or even grandparents, have to undergo a different visa process than other US nationals and are rarely issued visas with durations that are reserved for US nationals. The US State Department has never stood publicly with half a million US nationals of Pakistani origin.
India and the US are signing agreements of trade and other developmental programmes that exclude US citizens like me. Will other countries now follow suit and start their own policies of discriminating against some US citizens because of their origin? The state department is doing nothing to stop that fear from being a reality. Its strength is now a ‘mighty myth’ for citizens like us.
India, the world’s largest democracy, must realise that this policy effectively halts the revolution of a changed mindset between India and Pakistan. It only helps terror mongers. Mahatma Gandhi, who ignited the freedom movement by refusing to let the British discriminate against him in a train in South Africa, would not approve of this policy.
In the end, a plea to the Indian government: please welcome visa applicants of Pakistan origin. Realise that our mere will to visit your country is a defeat of hate mongers and terrorists. Read my name as a well-wisher of India who wants to visit you bearing nothing but prayers of love, peace and prosperity and is ready to provide you all the details needed to prove his legitimacy of travel.
Salman Nouman is a businessman based in Dubai and the USA. This piece was first published in the The News, Pakistan. Email: imfilmmaker AT me DOT com. Twitter: @ImFilmmaker