This innocuous looking building is the one government office in Islamabad that I dread visiting. No, it isn’t the headquarters of some all-powerful intelligence agency or some super-secret department.
It’s the passport and immigration office that I have to go to periodically to renew the visas for my wife and me. And my experiences at this office have ranged from the sublime to the ridiculous. More of the latter, actually.
If you thought the bureaucracy in India was all wrapped up in red tape and cumbersome, they have some healthy and stiff competition from their Pakistani counterparts. At the best of times, renewing our visas is a cumbersome procedure involving various levels of officialdom. At the worst of times, banging your head against a steel wall would seem to be a pleasant experience.
The process for renewing the visas begins a month or more before they expire with the filling in of several forms in triplicate and handing them over to the Information Ministry. The visa applications, however, are processed and cleared by the Interior Ministry after vetting by sundry “agencies”.
Why then does one have to apply to the Information Ministry? Because this is the ministry that is supposed to handle all matters related to Indian journalists, who cannot be allowed to come in contact with the secretive Interior Ministry.
Once the forms are submitted, they go from the Information Ministry to the Interior Ministry, where the folks seem to take their own sweet time clearing them. Invariably, the clearance from the Interior Ministry comes a month or two after our visas have expired and we’ve been surviving on a letter from the Information Ministry that lets everyone know our applications are being processed.
Even after the clearance, it’s no cakewalk as one then has to make the trip to passport and immigration office to get the visas stamped. That’s where things can get hairy.
Take the case of Mr Majid, who was once assigned to the desk handling Indian nationals (not that there are very many of them) at the passport office. Though all the paperwork had been completed and I had the precious letter from the Interior Ministry saying our visas should be extended, Mr Majid ploughed through all the documents, gave me a blank look and said, “I don’t understand your case.”
I left as the office was about to close for the day and returned the following day, only to be told by Mr Majid that he still did not understand my case. It was only when I barged into the office of Mr Majid’s superior and complained against him that our visas were stamped in the passports.
And I would be lying if I said I took no pleasure in learning some time later that Mr Majid was transferred from the passport office, partly due to my complaint against him.
By the way, the problems don’t end there. For the past few years, my wife and I have paid thousands of rupees as an “overstay charge” even though we apply for the extension of our visas well before they expire. We have been told we have to pay up because the extensions are done after our visas have expired.
Of course, no one seems to notice that the visas invariably expire because the Interior Ministry hasn’t cleared the extension in time.
Oh, did I mention that getting the challans from the State Bank of Pakistan to pay the visa fees and the overstay charges usually takes half a day as the queue at the bank is usually half a kilometre long? But after all the bureaucratese, it seems like a picnic.
|The queue outside the visa counter at the bank.|
In the four years that my wife and I have spent in Pakistan, our problems with our visas have been unending. We once lived without visas for six months, with no official giving us any explanation as to why they were not being extended. One day, as I completed an interview with Asif Ali Zardari, who was then yet to be elected President, he asked if I had any problems. I mentioned the visas and within three days, everything was cleared.
On one occasion, the valuable “Exempted from Police Reporting” stamp (which we are both entitled to) wasn’t affixed, leading to my wife and I being perpetually harassed for a year at airports. On another occasion, the official at the passport office arbitrarily reduced the term of our visas by 10 days. When I pointed it out to him, his response was: “It’s just 10 days it doesn’t matter.”
We have always had visas for Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. At the last extension, the visa was arbitrarily limited to just Islamabad and Lahore. End result? We couldn’t attend the Karachi Literature Festival, to which I was formally invited and which we both looking forward to.
And as I write this, I just realised that I have to begin the process for renewing our visas. Again.