On ‘Bureaucratic Torture’

For the past few days I’ve been racked with a terrible anxiety: I have a visa application appointment tomorrow. At the Indian consulate, to apply for a ten-year tourist visa, so that I may journey back to the land of my birth and former citizenship. I’ve had photographs taken, filled out forms, checked and re-checked them, searched for documents, filled out affidavits for lost passports, had them notarized in duplicate, triplicate and sometimes I’ve wondered whether quadruplicate might not be required too. And on and on, all the while dealing with a poorly designed website, the final insult to injury. I’m in the midst of an experience that I thought I had left behind once I had attained American citizenship more than a dozen years ago: brain-rotting encounters with immigration authorities. (Two years ago, because my American passport had expired, I had gone through the same procedure and submitted the same documents and affidavits.)

A few years ago, I interviewed an Israeli academic for an endowed chair position at Brooklyn College. During the interview, the candidate spoke, with some feeling, about her research on what she termed ‘bureaucratic torture’: the relentless, grinding, subjection of Palestinians to an endless series of checks, verifications, and paperwork-based procedures, all conducted by implacably hostile officials at a variety of venues including, most prominently, road check-points in the Occupied Territories. Over a period of time, these would reduce even the sanest and strongest human to a weak-kneed, anxious paranoiac, one convinced that someone, somewhere, would find out, somehow that something or the other was ‘not in order’. The penalties for that ‘disorder’ would then inevitably follow. The cold eye of the bureaucrat, the official, knew no sympathy and it would hand out none.

I listened to these descriptions with great interest. While I’ve never been unfortunate enough to be subjected to the kind of soul-destroying checks that are a Palestinian’s all-too common fate, I have had–as is evident from my angst-ridden preamble above–my fair share of encounters with hidebound bureaucrats: first in India, and then later in the US, most notably with the Immigration and Naturalization Service. (My Australian friends might find this hard to believe, but the few encounters I had with their Department of Immigration and Multicultural Affairs were relatively mellow affairs, each encounter mediated by a pleasant enough official who moved my papers along expeditiously.)

In India, because I assisted my mother in her management of a manufacturing unit, I had frequent occasion to encounter the archetypal babu. The classic bureaucratic encounter followed a well-worn and familiar template: the submission of a form–or several–with a stack of paperwork to a bored official, who with great alacrity, found some lacunae or the other, one for which there was no work-around forthcoming, and which necessitated a return to the office at some later date. All too often, I ran into one unblinkingly pedantic officer after another, each one convinced the natural order of the universe would be disrupted were any concession to common sense made.

Those encounters have left their mark; nothing reduces me to a gibbering mess faster than the anticipation of something similarly hidebound. Tonight I’ll calm my nerves with a glass of wine, and will not relax till I have my stamped passport in hand.

One thought on “On ‘Bureaucratic Torture’

  1. You have beautifully covered the angst of many of our denizens who are made to run from pillar to post for the simplest of things in life. It is perhaps a vicious circle: tough rules leading to a directly proportional tendency amongst the populace to devise short-cuts; this attempt at innovation being thwarted by the rule makers who end up framing tougher laws!

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