Srinagar: The process for issuing passport to residents of Jammu and Kashmir, especially in militancy-affected districts, has been made more elaborate by the local police since 5 August, the day when the central government announced the scrapping of Article 370.
Police sources said officers are now calling passport applicants to police stations to have “informal interviews”.
ThePrint has learnt that in some districts of Kashmir, particularly those in south Kashmir hit by militancy, passport verification is considered complete only after an “informal interview” with a police officer, preferably of an SP or DSP rank.
Sources said the move has been introduced to keep a check on individuals planning to travel to countries such as Pakistan.
Workaround due to restrictions
However, senior police officers denied that the verification process has been “changed”; they said it was a workaround due to the restrictions imposed after 5 August.
Earlier, police would conduct interviews with the applicants over the phone, or visit the candidates’ homes. But after the clampdown, it became difficult for them to reach certain far-flung areas in Kashmir, especially the south, due to the prevailing law and order situation.
“The initial few weeks when telephone services were barred (in August), the passport verification process had to be done manually. So, some applicants might have been called by the police for an interaction. This interaction is not new and would earlier happen on phones, which were not available at that time (during the communication restrictions),” a senior police officer told ThePrint.
Asked why the practice is still continuing despite the central government lifting restrictions on postpaid mobile and landline services, the officer said: “Prepaid mobile services are still shut and there are lakhs of prepaid SIM users in Kashmir, some of whom might not be accessible. That is the reason that some individuals are being called. This is routine.”
Contacted for a comment, Regional Passport Officer B.B. Nagar said, “When we receive the file of an applicant, we simply take cognisance of the police recommendation. That is our mandate. The interactions with the applicant are for police records, not for the use of the passport office,” Nagar said.
Questions asked by police ‘premature’
ThePrint spoke to five passport applicants — three of whom reside in militancy-hit south Kashmir districts. While applicants living in Srinagar said they were not summoned by the police, applicants from south Kashmir said they were.
The applicants, however, added the interactions with the police were not “hostile or aggressive”, although some of the questions they were asked sounded “premature”.
“Holding a passport is extremely important for everyone and not just for those who have immediate travel plans. I was asked which countries I intended to travel to, when I was going to travel, or if I had arranged money for my trip. All these questions, I believe, are not relevant to the passport issuance,” said a youth who had applied for a passport recently and did not want to be identified.
Another youth said he was asked about his financial status and how he planned to pay for tickets. “The question ideally should arise when I buy a ticket,” said the applicant.
A third applicant mentioned that he had been asked his future plans and career goals.
It’s a good step, says ADG
J&K’s Additional Director General of Police, Munir Khan, described the police interaction with passport applicants as a “good step”.
“This serves multiple purposes. For example, the police is able to check if the applicant is physically present at his residence in the village mentioned in the application form. It also increases healthy police-people interaction. I believe it is a good measure taken by the police,” Khan said.
Passport verification in Kashmir is an elaborate process in any case. While in other parts of the country, the verification is a single-layer exercise conducted by the local police after receiving instructions from the passport office, in J&K, it is a two-layer process, as it’s done by both by the local police and the CID.
Once the verification is done by the local police, the district SP then forwards the report to the passport office.
In case of the CID verification, the report is first approved by the Additional Director General of Police, CID. Following this, the CID report is sent to the passport office.
Sources told ThePrint that the J&K civil administration has directed the police to also be extra vigilant with individuals travelling to some countries such as Pakistan in the wake of the tension prevailing in the region since the government’s Article 370 move.
Many youth from Kashmir go to Pakistan to pursue education. The central government, however, has been deliberating on what to do with the degrees of such students.
Sources said two meetings — with the latest being on 19 November — have already taken place between the Ministry of Home Affairs, Ministry of External Affairs and J&K Police, among others, in this regard.