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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 15 New Delhi March 30, 2019

It’s the bureaucracy, stupid

Sunday 31 March 2019

THE UTTERLY CRASS AND VULGAR SENSE OF BUREAUCRATIC HUMOUR IN WHAT WAS ONCE BEHIND THE IRON CURTAIN

by Somdeb Lahiri

On June 25, 2008 I boarded a flight from Delhi to attend the Second International Conference on Game Theory and Management that was held at the Graduate School of Management, Saint Petersburg State University, Russia on June 26-27, 2008. I changed flights at Helsinki and arrived at St. Petersburg’s Pulkovo airport by flight number AY 0165 the same day. It is very unfortunate that I faced misconduct on the part of the immigration clerks at St. Petersburg Pulkovo airport which I want to put on record, for the sake of posterity.

At the immigration counter I was kept waiting for several minutes and then the lady immigration clerk at the counter called her colleagues one by one and started a discussion none of which I could understand since it was all being carried out in Russian. From their gesticulation I gathered they were discussing my passport. In the meanwhile one lady immigration clerk asked me whether I carried a “seaman’s book” to which I replied in the negative telling them that I was a teacher by profession. Soon a gent immigration clerk had joined them in their discussion and I asked him what the problem was, since I had a valid visa to enter the Russian Federation. I was told that my passport had been tampered with and I could not be allowed to enter the Russian Federation. Apparently a piece of thread that had bound the nine-year-old passport together was sticking out and that was the reason. This clearly was not a problem for either the Russian Embassy at Mumbai or the immigration people at sundry countries (including India).

I was then made to wait while these people were carrying on their discussion (sometime behind closed doors and sometimes in the open). They told the local Finnair representatives to arrange for my return to Helsinki. I told the immigration people (a) their complain of tampering was not correct since there was a stamp running across the two pages that was held fast by the binding; (b) I was here in St. Petersburg to attend a conference and I showed them the letter of invitation from the organisers of the conference. They replied by saying that “all that was no longer important” apparently referring to the letter of invitation. I entreated them to allow me to pass through immigration, but to no avail. They insisted that the passport had been tampered and forced me to go back to the flight that was returning to Helsinki.

All the while that my passport was under condition by the immigration clerks, till the moment I passed through security (for God alone knows why, since I had gone through security at Helsinki and was not allowed to pass through the immigration counters at Pulkova airport), the staff at the immigration portal had congregated together and were laughing and joking at my expense.

At Helsinki (where I arrived technically as a “deportee”) the border police thoroughly examined my passport and declared that there was nothing wrong with it. However they were in no position to argue with the immigration clerks at St. Petersburg and according to the border police the best thing for me to do would be to go back to Delhi. I complied with their suggestion and after returning to India the immigration authorities found no problems with anything concerning my passport.

That passport with which I was travelling to St. Petersburg, expired only recently, and between then and now I have travelled numerous times with it across what has always been a part of the free world, without any problems being faced at any immigration counter. It is also true that from that fateful day (June 25, 2008) till date I have never tried to visit any country that was supposedly liberated with the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1990, and I have never tried to visit any country which is still not considered to be a part of the free world.

In view of the incident at St. Petersburg airport described above, I was not able to attend the conference.

I feel bad about the waste of time and health that I had to incur on this trip. I flew almost continuously for 36 hours! I regret the money spent by our university on the air-ticket that went to waste. Above all, I feel needlessly humiliated for reasons that are yet to be explained to me. What was on public display at the immigration counters of Pulkova airport on June 25, 2008 was the utterly crass and vulgar sense of bureaucratic humour, in what was once behind the iron curtain.

The authoritarianism that propped up behind the erstwhile iron curtain was indeed bad and sometimes evil. But the bureaucracy that has survived its dismantling is nothing short of a nightmare being played out in reality.

The author belongs to the School of Petroleum Management, PD Petroleum University, Raisan, Gandhinagar, Gujarat. He can be contacted at somdeb.lahiri[at]yahoo.co.in

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