An attempt to get a mobile phone number proves to be a journey of discovery — about the subtle, and not so subtle ways of discrimination

“Nobody’s as attractive as they appear on their display pictures. But they are also not as ugly as they seem on their electoral cards.”

These lines will probably ring some bells among Facebook users in India. It might draw a few reassuring smirks, tempt some to casually glance at their voter ID card, and say: “Of course, I look better than that!”

Granted, our electoral cards are not always the best mirrors of our intricate subcontinental facial features. But beyond that, it should be no cause for any major repercussions, or at least that is what one would think.

I, however, was recently stung by the joke so severely that I have begun to take it seriously, and rather personally.

In mid-July, fresh in the holy city Allahabad and already terrified by roaming charges, I set out to buy a local SIM.

The regulations were clear enough: I submit duplicates of my identity card(s) plus a “recently clicked” photograph and after some form-filling, cross-signing and billing, the number would be mine. Later, the company would call to confirm whether I still remembered my name, my father’s name, date of birth and so on.

It all went smoothly. The next evening, someone did ring. But only to blurt out, “Your ID won’t work, get another one.”

I was puzzled. I had submitted all the required documents plus my local guardian’s identification proof, as outstation customers are obliged to do.

“Your photo does not match the photo on the card,” the voice continued, somewhat hesitantly.

Less subtly, he meant to say, “You are slightly bearded, but the photo is not.”

The following day, I tried educating the retailer and the salesperson that a citizen obtains a voter card at 18 and I was 23. Easy math, minor changes are natural. But to no avail — clearly, little regard for biology here.

So, along with a restrengthened arsenal of documents, I approached the retailer again. I asked my local guardian to come along too, just in case they didn’t like her picture either.

The retailer “approved” the documents with a nod but rather cautiously informed me that he was “not sure the company would accept them.”

“It’s up to the company now,” he passed the judgment, but gave no explanations about what qualified for that approval.

Would they not approve my face? Or Name? Date of birth? Religion? Or something else? I had no way of knowing, and the retailer couldn’t tell me either. But since I laid bare enough personal details and proof of my being a journalist, I was certain the SIM would be confirmed.

And it was. But in my local guardian’s name! My documents were rejected without any explanation and the company’s salesperson stipulated that now I also needed an “assurance” letter from a local organisation to make me eligible for my own SIM. Why didn’t they tell me all this earlier?

I was impressed by such fastidious dedication toward national security, but decided to approach higher authority anyway. And to cut the story short, eventually I did get a SIM; a new SIM.

This was no undercover investigative assignment, and most likely, it is not a one-off either. Probably, it does have a little more to do than the substandard print of our identity cards?

In June, while I was in New Delhi, unknown numbers would call me probing my origins and “real residence,” only hours after I had bought a new SIM. Custom procedure? Probably not. Wrong number?

Possible.

Definitely the hotel managers get it right when they ring my number just to check its authenticity, while I register at the counter. But it’s not just hotel executives and retailers whose hearts start racing at a glimpse of my identity card.

Even armed men in pretty uniforms are sometimes left with an “I just got stung by a scorpion” expression while they carefully read my identity card.

Take for instance, July 2011. While boarding a flight to Chennai from Kolkata I was thoroughly probed about my purpose for visiting the southern metropolis.

My laptop was scanned while I was away picking up another tag for my bag. They even managed to pull out my “identity card” out of a book in my bag.

After convincing himself I was no threat, a rather bulky security personnel in sand grey uniform remarked sheepishly: “Oomur... Humne aapka naam padha toh dar gaye...”

His face showed he was relieved more than anything, but perhaps also a mite disappointed. All he had found on me was a book on Swami Vivekananda.

We shout national emergency when our overpaid celebrities get delayed at western airports. But hardly have we introspected what young students and professionals from certain sections face while moving within the country. Or even while trying to rent a flat.

Recently, there was a case, right here in India, involving the nephew of actor Naseeruddin Shah. The media wasted no time laying out his credentials as a former Major, with some news websites highlighting the words “discrimination” and “Muslim” in dark bold fonts.

But for ordinary citizens, these things happen so subtly and swiftly, they can only smile back in time.

National security and social security are important. But should it be at the cost of common sense? The paranoia regarding the “other” is here to stay.

The names of the people and organisations involved in this little episode, I decided not to disclose. What identity does a SIM have, after all?

(Omar Rashid is The Hindu’s new Allahabad correspondent.)

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