Back in 1976. the Indian Government, for whom my father, Ipe Samuel Varghese, worked in Colombo, cheated him of Rs 13,500 – the gratuity that he was supposed to be paid when he was dismissed from the Indian High Commission (the equivalent of the embassy) in Colombo.
That sum, adjusted for inflation, works out to Rs 332,775 in today’s rupees.
But he was not paid this amount because the embassy said he had contravened rules by working at a second job, something which everyone at the embassy was doing, because what people were paid was basically a starvation wage. But my father had rubbed against powerful interests in the embassy who were making money by taking bribes from poor Sri Lankan Tamils who were applying for Indian passports to return to India.
But let me start at the beginning. My father went to Sri Lanka (then known as Ceylon) in 1947, looking for employment after the war. He took up a job as a teacher, something which was his first love. In 1956, when the Sri Lankan Government nationalised the teaching profession, he was left without a job.
It was then that he began working for the Indian High Commission which was located in Colpetty, and later in Fort. As he was a local recruit, he was not given diplomatic status. The one benefit was that our family did not need visas to stay in Sri Lanka — we were all Indian citizens — but only needed to obtain passports once we reached the age of 14.
As my father had six children, the pay from the High Commission was not enough to provide for the household. He would tutor some students, either at our house, or else at their houses. He was very strict about his work, and was unwilling to compromise on any rules.
There were numerous people who worked alongside him and they would occasionally take a bribe from here and there and push the case of some person or the other for a passport. The Tamils, who had gone to Sri Lanka to work on the tea plantations, were being repatriated under a pact negotiated by Sirima Bandaranaike, the Sri Lankan prime minister, and Lal Bahadur Shastri, her Indian counterpart. It was thus known as the Sirima-Shastri pact.
There was a lot of anti-Tamil sentiment brewing in Sri Lanka at the time, feelings that blew up into the civil war from 1983 onwards, a conflict that only ended in May 2009. Thus, many Tamils were anxious and wanted to do whatever it took to get an Indian passport.
Thus, they found many High Commission employees more than willing to accept bribes in order to push their cases. But they came up against a brick wall in my father. There was another gentleman who was an impediment too, a man named Navamoni. The others used to call him Koranga Moonji Dorai – meaning monkey face man – as he was a wizened old man. He would lose his temper and shout at people when they tried to mollify him with this or that to push their cases.
Given this, it was only a matter of time before some of my father’s colleagues went to the higher-ups and complained that he was earning money outside his High Commission job. They all were as well, but nobody had rubbed up against the powers-that-be. By then, due to his competence, my father had been put in charge of the passport section, a very powerful post, because he could approve or turn down any application.
The men who wanted to make money through bribes found him a terrible obstacle. One day in May, when my mother called up the High Commission, she was told that my father no longer worked there. Shocked, she waited until he came home to find out the truth. We had no telephone at home.
The family was not in the best financial position at the time. We had a few weeks to return to India as we had been staying in Sri Lanka on the strength of my father’s employment. And then came the biggest shock: the money my father had worked for all those 20 years was denied to him.
We came back to India by train and ferry; we could not afford to fly back. It was a miserable journey and for many years after that we suffered financial hardship because we had no money to tide us over that period.
Many years later, after I migrated to Australia, I went to the Indian Consulate in Coburg, a suburb of Melbourne, to get a new passport, I happened to speak to the consul and asked him what I should do with my old passport. He made my blood boil by telling me that it was my patriotic duty to send it by post to the Indian embassy in Canberra. I told him that I owed India nothing considering the manner in which it had treated my father. And I added that if the Indian authorities wanted my old passport, then they could damn well pay for the postage. He was not happy with my reply.
India is the only country in the world which will not restore a person’s citizenship if he/she asks for it in his/her latter years for sentimental reasons, just so that he/she can die in the land of his birth. India is also the only country that insists its own former citizens obtain a visa to enter what is their own homeland. Money is not the only thing for the Indian Government; it is everything.
Every other country will restore a person’s citizenship in their latter years of they ask for it for sentimental reasons. Not India.