Up In The Sky: Flying on an Identification Certificate (IC)
(Guest post by Tsiphu* [pseudonym]. In this story, a second generation Tibetan refugee from India recounts her experience of traveling abroad on Identity Certificate (IC). IC is a travel document that the Indian government issues in lieu to a national passport to Tibetan refugees.)
March 11, 2012 at 8:21am
Just before I entered the air-conditioned white spaciousness of Delhi airport, I looked at my parents for the last time and managed to fake a weak smile. While the parting made me emotional, I did not look back at them. My mind, he knew it too well that I couldn’t afford to be messed up, no, not at the airports.
I checked to see whether the counter of my flight was open and then headed my way towards the queue. For what felt like the hundredth time, I looked at my flight ticket, made sure that my “yellow passport” was with me. Once I was done with the first step, I proceeded to my school bag where I have kept all the other necessary documents; my college enrollment letter, financial aid and academic records, a copy of my birth certificate and the police clearance from the Superintendent of my hometown; Dharamshala. You never know when you would need them, Amala would say.
All the documents seemed fine except for the last one. The police clearance said in one sentence that I have no past criminal records and therefore I am cleared to exit Dharamshala. As I looked at the half-page-torn, typed-letter, I noticed the only credibility this paper contains was a purple stamp from the police station. I started worrying about possible problems this could create: what if the immigration does not take this paper seriously, will they detain me, then, what will happen? I tried to calm myself down by reminding that I have followed every law required of a Tibetan political refugee and besides, I am a student. They will surely let me go. I took a deep breath and waited for the lady behind the counter to signal for my turn.
I tried to appear calm and looked around. Most of the other passengers were Indians. I always envy the big families whose only problems usually seem to be with excess luggage. I envy the relaxed look on their faces. Suddenly, I felt very alone, very different from the crowd. I couldn’t wait to get this done with.
Soon enough, the young lady who was working at the counter looked towards me and motioned her hand. I walked straight, said hi with a big smile. She smiled back, “Ticket and passport, please.” Relieved to find that she was in a good mood, “Here it is”, I said, intentionally putting my ticket on the page of the passport that had my American visa. She looked at the ticket, puts it aside and then started flipping through the pages of the passport. She raised her eyebrows and gave me a confused look. I knew this was coming.
“What is this?” she asked me. “ Mam, this is an identity certificate, it is issued by the Indian government for Tibetan refugees. We use this as our travel document”, I replied. Then she started asking more questions, “ Where is your picture”, “ Where is the date of expiry” and each time, I tried my best to answer. Still, she didn’t seem convinced. I could not make out what she was thinking but I did not like the way she looked at me. “ Could you hold on a second”, she told me. She couldn’t verify this “passport”, so she called her senior to come and check the case. They talked for a while. Time seemed to pass very slowly. People behind me were looking at me, wondering why I was taking such a long time.
The boss, a tall and a guy in his mid-30s looked at the document, checked my American visa and then asked for my I-20. I reached into the file in my bag and presented it to him. He looked at me again and then at the “passport.” I became very conscious of myself. “ Ti-ba-tien ho?” (Are you Tibetan?), I said yes. The lady behind the counter was still confused, “ Yeh kya hai Sir?” She was asking her boss about the passport. “ In loko-ka aisa hi hai” (these people have this document), he replied.
While her lack of knowledge was understandable, I cannot help but feel a little annoyed. He finally told her to take my luggage in and issue my boarding pass. Phew, I am done with my first checking, my mind noted. I checked the time. I still had two hours but better to get this done with. So I quickly put my boarding pass inside my “yellow passport” and headed towards immigration. During the times of my first travel outside India, I used to get confused at the point where they have different signs that say Diplomats, Indian Nationals, and Foreigners. Am I a foreigner or am I an Indian national? I decided that since I am a foreigner born in India, I should stick with being an Indian national. I looked for any pleasant looking immigration officers and tried to join the queue accordingly.
I ended up at a desk of a young man who was sharing it with a sober looking Punjabi officer. He puts his hands, in a gesture of asking me to give my passport. The whole flipping, looking at me, looking back, the building of confusion started. He called someone else and the other person asked the young guy to ask me to show my police clearance. I promptly put it on the desk. He looked at it and laughed. He seemed to be thinking, what the hell is this. And then, my complex built. I started feeling the itch of annoyance again, that the monotony of such repetition creates. The journey from the airport to the plane brutally seems to force my identity on me, in a way that strips dignity and respect. But I tried to keep a neutral face because I knew that tonight, no matter how many documents I produce, this man still has the power to decide whether I get to board my plane or not.
I felt vulnerable. I felt powerless. And I felt fear. At this moment, dozens of thoughts came to my head. I thought to myself, no education would protect me right now. I realized to myself, politics is real for us, because it has real consequences. There was nothing I could do except to look for compassion. As the young man played around with the paper, finally, the older Punjabi officer intervened, “ Ja-ne Do” (Let her go). The younger one looked at his senior, his eyes seemed to ask, “ but sir, with this (the police clearance).” The senior read his mind, “ Yahi hain” (This is it), meaning this is the paper that I am supposed to present. The junior finally relented and stamped my IC. At that moment, I gave the old Punjabi officer my brightest smile.
From then on, I relaxed my body and head to the gate. While waiting, I finally let the tears do its business. Then, I boarded my flight to the US.
As the plane started to rise, I looked out of my window.
The view got larger but the places smaller.
Everything looked so insignificant from above.
Very soon, all I could see were dots of light.
I am struck by this paradox.
Unlike the airport, where the “yellow passport” gets its trial,
Up in the sky, there are no countries.
Up in the sky, we transcend all differences.
With this thought, I experienced a wondrous sense of liberation.
P.S: I wanted to tell this story because my airport experience is one way I understand why people inside Tibet do what they do. While I am saddened by the enormity of their pain, I am also moved by their determination to stand strong.