After Twitter Troll Storm, Lucknow Passport Saga Ends In a Win for Inter-Faith Couple

Under liberalised rules for passport applications, the direction from the MEA has been to take the applicant at their word with a simplified verification process by the police.

New Delhi: With the regional passport officer clearing the passports of Tanvi Seth and her husband Mohammad Anas on Wednesday, the ministry of external affairs hopes to put a lid on the saga which began with a tweet and turned into a social media firestorm with communal and political overtones.

On Thursday, MEA spokesperson Ravish Kumar gave a detailed statement as there was “a lot of misinformation has been going around in the matter related to the issue of passport to Ms. Tanvi Seth”. He added that there was “a need to separate facts from fiction”.

“I would like to categorically state that all existing norms were followed during the issue of passport to Ms. Tanvi Seth,” he asserted.

On June 20, Tanvi Seth was at a Lucknow Passport Seva Kendra, along with her husband of 11 years, Mohammad Anas. Their appointment with passport officer Vikas Mishra to show their documents was expected to go smoothly, but as per her official complaint, she left the passport office in tears.

In her post on Twitter, Seth identified Mishra as having told her that it was “her duty to change [her] name after marriage”. Mishra had apparently claimed after looking at her ‘nikahnama’ that her name was different from that under which she had applied and that her marriage to a Muslim made it mandatory to sport a new name.

Her husband Anas also told the media separately that Mishra passed disparaging remarks about him, telling him to convert to Hinduism and to undergo Hindu marriage rituals.

While minister of external affairs Sushma Swaraj was tagged by Seth and Anas on Twitter, she was on an official tour in Europe at the time. An aide of Swaraj tracking the complaints on Twitter brought the matter to the attention of the MEA secretary (consular, passport and visa) D.M. Mulay, who sought a report from the Lucknow Regional Passport Office.

Based on the complaint, an inquiry was initiated against Mishra. “We needed to find out if the allegations were true or not. So as per routine procedure, he was shifted to another office,” explained an official.

The next day, Seth and Anas were scheduled to meet with the Lucknow regional passport officer Piyush Verma regarding their complaint. After checking that all the required documents were in place for a tatkal application, the RPO handed over new passports to the couple.

“Passport was issued to Ms. Seth after careful examination of the documents submitted and following due process as per the Passport Act,” said Kumar.

Officials pointed out that a tatkal passport – one on a express delivery – does not require pre-verification by the police. It also requires furnishing of any three documents, which range from Aadhaar, a driving license to a voter ID card.

On being tracked down by the media, Mishra defended himself. “I asked Tanvi Seth to get the name ‘Shadia Anas’ endorsed as it was mentioned on her nikahnama, but she refused. We have to go thorough checks to ensure no person is changing their name to obtain a passport,” he told ANI.

Mishra, therefore, did not adhere to the rules when he f cited the difference in the names in the nikahnama with that in the official application as a road-block to getting a passport. “On the marriage certificate, under the revised passport application rules, there is no requirement for submission of a marriage certificate at the time of application of passport. Therefore, the name in the marriage certificate is not relevant to the issue of passport,” said the MEA spokesperson.

The revised passport rules on marriage certificate not being required were announced in December 2016, based on a report of a joint inter-ministerial committee of ministry of external affairs and ministry of women and child development.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had also mentioned that his government had revised rules to discontinue the submission of marriage certificate for passport applications by women in a speech in Mumbai in April 2017.

When asked why Mishra was shown the nikahnama by Tanvi in the first place, the MEA sources pointed out that it was common practice for applicants to arrive for their appointment at the passport office laden with additional documents just in case.

In fact, Swaraj had reiterated on June 26 at a conference of passport officers that the liberalised rules for passport applications included the removal of marriage certificate from the list of required documents.

“Some married women and men said that they faced difficulties… that they are asked to show marriage certificate… there is no requirement for marriage certificate to get a passport. We said, discard this rule. No married man or woman should have to show a marriage certificate to get a passport,” said the minister.

As an official explained, the direction has been to take the applicant at their word, with a simplified verification process by the police. “When a person is applying for the first time, they get their passports largely on the basis of self-declaration. It is when they come to the passport office for the second time for a change in any particulars in the passport, that more intensive questioning is done,” he said.

The direction toward self-declaration and culling the list of required documents in passport procedures is also part of the process of reducing the discretionary authority of individual officers and therefore, decreasing the opportunities for illegal gratification.

Swaraj learnt about the controversy on the last day of her European tour, when officials informed her about the blowback from certain quarters who were convinced that Seth and Anas had violated the rules to get their passports.

Upon returning, Swaraj decided to bring public attention to the abusive tweets, which led to questions about whether the silence from her colleagues was a deliberate political signal.

Separately from the political controversy, the ministry concluded its inquiry and found that Mishra had not been following the established rules. However, sources said that his transfer to Gorakhpur should not be seen as a punishment as he had not been suspended. Further, transfers from one office to another for passport officers are a routine matter, they argued.

From June 21, there were innumerable rumours floated on social media ranging from Tanvi Seth having another passport with a Muslim name to her looking to retain her Hindu name as she had allegedly been rejected for a visa by a foreign country. None of these rumours were, of course, accurate. Faced with a barrage of hate messages, Seth deactivated her Twitter account but in the Twitter trolliverse, even this was held up as an example of her supposed “guilt”.

Meanwhile, the Uttar Pradesh police was asked to conduct a post-facto verification, as required for out-of-turn passports. “Thousands of passports are issued on an urgent basis and then police verification is done later. This is nothing out of the ordinary,” asserted sources.

On June 26, media outlets reported from Lucknow that the police had found that Tanvi Seth was not staying in the address in her application. “In our investigation, we found out that Tanvi Seth has not been staying at the current mentioned address for a year. We have sent our report to the Regional Passport Office, further investigation will be done by them,” said Senior Superintendent of Police, Deepak Sharma.

However, just like the nikahnama, police verification of the residential address of an applicant to obtain a passport is also part of the long list of obsolete rules.

On May 21, the MEA chief passport officer wrote a letter to the state Director Generals of Police enclosing a revised police verification report which came into force from June 1. The Kerala-based newspaper Mathrubhumi reported on this change in rules in an article dated June 1. 

The previous police verification report had nine questions which required answers in ‘yes or no’ format. The revised report removed three questions, all of which dealt with the address of the passport holder or applicant.

“The letter with the revised applicant was issued as we were getting too many adverse reports that applicant was not present at the location when the police visited. People are mobile now. They don’t stay at the same address for a long period, whether for studies or jobs,” added sources.

Confirming the change in police verification rules, MEA spokesperson noted that the “police verification report sent to RPO Lucknow was to be based on a decision taken in December 2017 that PV will be undertaken only on two points – whether the applicant is a citizen of India and whether the applicant has any criminal case pending against him or her”.

He stated that these two aspects were “converted into a six point PV form”. “This decision was communicated to the DGPs of all states and UTs to implement the PV norms from 1 June 2018,” added Kumar.

The first question of the six-point’ form was whether the applicant was a citizen of India. The next four were about criminal antecedents of the applicant, including whether there were pending criminal charges and any warrant of arrest. The police had to also reply in yes or no as to whether there were any court conviction or the applicant were legally prohibited from leaving the country.

The sixth question in the police verification report is to find out whether the applicants have ever been involved in any activity which impacts the sovereignty or security of country.

“In the Tanvi Seth case, there was no adverse report on all six points mentioned in the revised form,” said Kumar.

The UP police added two more comments in a separate section “based on which the PV report was put under adverse category”, he added.

The police noted that her name in the nikahnama and in the applicant were not the same. The second police observation was that there “was a discrepancy in her address on the ground that her rental address in Noida is not mentioned in the PP form by the applicant”.

Kumar pointed out that the marriage certificate rule had been dropped earlier after revision of rules. “Therefore, the name in the marriage certificate is not relevant to the issue of passport”.

On the discrepancy about the address, the MEA spokesperson said that Tanvi Seth had submitted her Aadhaar card and joint bank account as a proof for her name and address which was the same as mentioned in the application form. “…Therefore, the issue of passport to Tanvi Seth was found in order based on the existing rules,” he said.

The story was updated on July 5 with the MEA spokesperson’s statement.