Tuesday, November 1, 2011

That's not bureaucracy, this is bureaucracy.

This post is long and frustrating and legalese. I won't be offended if you skip it.

I want to go to Nepal and Bhutan from Nov 2-18, then return to India until Jan 2. The problem is that my visa is a 10-year multiple entry visa, valid for up to 6 months at a time, but there's this new "2 month rule" saying that if I leave India, I can't re-enter for 2 months. (this is because of some recent terrorist who was going back and forth to Pakistan, scouting terror sites.)
However, there's a clause in the "2 month rule" which says that travel to neighboring countries for tourism and then re-entering within 2 months, as I'm doing, is fine. However, I want to be sure I can get back into India.
(Note that there is another clause that says that re-entering in 2 months is fine for anyone, if there's a death in the family or emergency or something. This requires FRRO registration, and is not the clause I'm looking at.)

Official site:
The actual law (as of March 9, 2011) is here.

Unofficial officialish sites:
This site says a permit is not required if you carry an itinerary and ticket bookings. You can get authorization at the port of entry (i.e. the Nepal border) or the India embassy in Nepal.

People's experiences online:
This epic thread has over 2200 posts. I'll start from the most recent. At about 2280-2289, people are basically restating the law, as I understand it. #2267 had no problems. Going back a few pages, seems like nobody actually has experience here, just lots of speculation about the law.
This person had gotten the permit and didn't need it. Someone else here had no problem. The officer told him he had wasted his time getting the permit.
This guy had no problems.
This person said two people had recently done it.
One responder (uselessbaba) here had done it last year.
This guy bribed a guard. Not condoning this, but it happened.
I'm omitting a couple threads where people just heard about stuff. "I heard people got turned away" and "I heard people got back in no problem" are not useful answers.
I've not found any threads where someone is actually visiting neighboring countries for tourism and are getting turned away.

So things seem pretty positive on the internet, but I don't want to risk this. Whom can I contact?
"Foreigners holding tourist visas, who after initial entry into India plan to visit another country largely on account of neighbourhood tourism related travel and re-enter India before finally exiting, may be permitted two or three entries, as the case may be, by the Indian Missions/Posts subject to their submission of a detailed itinerary and supporting documentation (ticket bookings)."
What's an Indian Mission/Post? I read further, and the law talks about the FRRO/FRO (Foreigner's Regional Registration Office/Foreigner Registration Officer), so I check the FRRO website, which is useless, except that it has a string of phone numbers. I call them all:
26711384 says visas are at 26711443.
26711443 is a fax.
26195530 answers "FRRO Delhi, dial an extension or wait for an operator", but whether I wait or dial extension 302, no answer ever.
26192634, ext 142 is always busy. (or has long beeps; I assume that means "busy".)
26171944, ext 141 is the same.
26711384 again (because at least I talked to a human) tells me to call 26107940, ext 302.
26107940, ext 302 is busy a couple times, then answers "FRRO Delhi, dial an extension or wait for an operator" and there is no answer.
I give up for now.

I talk to Keith at Sonapani, a seasoned part-time expat, who advises me that the Ministry of Home Affairs (on Mansingh Road in Delhi) is actually the one I want. The MHA is huge, but I find this list of contact info for the Foreigners' Division. I'm in the process of calling them all today. So far:
Anil Goswami's office (23094927) has advised me to call GVV Sharma (23383075).
Anuj Sharma's office (23389286) has advised me to call Vinod Kumar (23381374). 23381374 is listed as PV Sivaraman's number, not Vinod Kumar's.
Vinod Kumar's number (23073645) is a fax machine.
PV Sivaraman's office (23381374) didn't really know what I was talking about, and said I had to come to Delhi to get the permission to re-enter within two months, but I think that means if I'm under the "emergency" clause, which I'm not. Then he gave me some other number, 23382989, and hung up.
GVV Sharma hasn't responded.

So. What to do? Well, the Bhutan trip and plane ticket ($1448) is already paid, so skipping it and staying in India for all 4 months is a really bad option. Nobody's been unsuccessful returning to India. The letter of the law would say that I'm fine. I'm going over land borders, which seem more likely to be friendly. I'll go to the embassy in Kathmandu to see if I can get anything in writing. But still, but still...

... wait! Finally got through to Mr. G.V.V. Sharma, and he knew what I was talking about. And his response was reasonable: contact your local FRO in Nainital. Where? In the SP. The SP? The Suvendra Police. Err, okay.

I ask the internet cafe owner if he knows where the SP is. The SP? The Suvendra Police. Well, just walk out this way. Okay. I find a police station. "Hello sir, can we help you?" Well, I have a tourist visa, I mean a multiple entry tourist visa, and there's this two month... "Sorry, we can't help you here." My heart sank as I feared he'd send me to Delhi, but: "Just go to the SSP." Where is it? "Across the way. You know Tallital? Just ask there." Tallital is 1km away. Great!

After asking a couple of folks and climbing a big hill, I find the SSP: the Superintendant of Police. Superintendant, right. At least I didn't go in there asking for Mr. Suvendra.

I ask for the FRO, and am directed to a side office where a young lady is sitting. For some reason, this is surprising. "Hello. Um... are you the FRO?" Yes, this is his office. I explain my whole story and she tells me that, because I'm on a tourist visa, I can go wherever, I don't have to register with them. (I guess if you're on a work/student/etc visa, you have to register there if you leave/enter the country. Eep!) I explain that there is actually this two month rule for tourists, handing her the printout of the rule (booyah), and can I have something in writing? She says no, no permission is required. Argh argh, I still want something to fall back on if the immigration officer is having a bad day.

I ask, "Can I have the phone number of this office then?" She replies, "Sure. Can I have yours?" Uh, okay. What just happened here? I mean, she is kind of cute. No no, this is India, that is not what just happened here.

But everything clicks a little bit as she explains that when it says "Get permission at the Indian mission/post", that means the border post. Explain my situation as I leave India, and somehow get permission to re-enter. And if I have any problems, I can call her. Excellent.

So! Tomorrow: Nepal, here we go!

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