Visa is not a right, courtesy is

Ekushey Padak awardee, sculptor Hamiduzzaman Khan Sir was my senior colleague at university. It's been quite a while, close to a decade, since we last met. After all these years consulting Sir was critical, because I was exploring the possibility of his art objects adorning the garden of a bungalow I designed. Ever since my client mentioned their preference for abstract forms on the plus-two bigha land, I was hoping the mark of the celebrated sculptor would befit the green.

The predilection for "abstract" creations was not for fear of otherwise being accused of idol worship, but because the memory of and controversy surrounding Her (bandaged) Ugliness at the Dhaka High Court premises remains fresh. Who said love was blind? Visual Art cannot be. That too because lovers see beauty in a paramour not by optics alone. The statue lady has her eyes covered to convey that justice is blind, and yet justice seeks the truth with eyes, ears and the mind wide open.

Lady Justitia, as the icon of impartiality, featured in the earliest Roman coins with a sword in one hand and a scale in the other, (and Ciaio!) her eyes were uncovered. In predominantly the Western World, a blindfolded Lady Justitia has symbolised the notion that fairness is delivered without regard to wealth or power, relationship or position, colour or creed, but only towards the end of the 15th century. It was sculptor Hans Gieng who granted Justitia universal fame by making her statue the centrepiece of the Fountain of Justice in Berne 1543. Do we assume then that corruption in the Swiss (or the larger European) judiciary was becoming apparent at around that time? Which fact also leads to cynicism, why a sullied and saried version of Justitia had to debut in Dhaka almost five hundred years later? Could there not be a more aesthetic deshi variety, impassioned by abstraction, if you will?

Back to my Sculptor Sir, who did recognise me over telephone and pondered, "Do you now stay in Australia?" A bit startled at the timing, my mind plummeted down and under while frantically denying. I could not tell Sir, embarrassed and confused as I was, that merely my application for an Australian tourist visa was lying with the High Commission then for forty days. As such, the question of residing there struck me as fortuitous mockery. Incidentally, the Scout programme for which purpose I had intended to visit the land of kangaroos and duck-billed platypuses had come to pass on the fifteenth day of my application.

In spite of dawdling with me, online visa processing is rather convenient, and yet, the irritable element is that some missions (and their agents) will not give you a date of a decision. You are then in a seemingly eternal limbo; not knowing when (it's coming), who (to contact), why (the delay), how (to expedite), which (embassies to avoid), and where (you might end up). This after having paid a hefty amount for the visa, etc.

Real-life encounters are no less memorable. My singular experience at the Japanese embassy three years back made me realise that a certain Bangladeshi employee considered it his right to be rude to visa applicants. He was so bad-mannered in his dealings that I gathered my papers and walked out. Ah well, that is also because my planned visit to Japan was not absolutely necessary.

International relations would greatly benefit from better PR from those who serve in the visa section, which verity the Japanese realised I believe soon enough because the beyadab was not in sight when I revisited several months later. I was indeed very well served by another Bangalee bhadrolok. Since then I have visited Japan thrice, and I must add that I have not seen a people more well-behaved and courteous as the Japanese.

More recently, my friend's trusted travel agent quoted about Tk. 6,000 for a Malaysian visa. No interview was required, and my friend had only to submit a signed application with all required documents. In much less than a week, the passport was stamped for 'Truly Asia'. My friend was pleased with the service (who wouldn't?) until he discovered that only Tk. 600 was printed on his visa as the fee. "But I paid ten times more?" he exclaimed. The travel agent explained that the larger amount was indeed deposited to the agent at the Embassy, but only the smaller amount was acknowledged.

High officials at the Embassy as well as the Ministry of Labour and Employment should investigate this huge discrepancy, particularly because we have thousands of grateful workers serving in Malaysia. Mind you, each of them, many from very humble economic base, have difficulty in arranging extra money. It is no less than sucking the workers' ultimate resource. The issue here is of integrity. Many would not mind paying the actual visa fee if only the total amount would be officially acknowledged.

One mission which has most successfully brushed off the ills of the past is India. Gone are undignified overnight queues on the roadside. Sale of space 'reserved' by a brick at thousand taka and more is history. Gone are days of frustration in trying to glean out an elusive online e-token, the tamasha of which had generated an entirely new line of business. Now, freedom fighters and those aged 65-plus are granted five-year multiple-entry visa in a simple, decent and preferential manner. Those seeking medical treatment receive priority. General applicants get a response in a number of known days. The fees are nominal.

India has demonstrated that a system turnaround is possible for the better, and in quick time. About a year ago, dalals were in control and uncertainty was the norm. If the mission with by far the largest number of Bangladeshi visa hopefuls can revamp its modus operandi to provide much improved service, it should be a cakewalk for every other country. This is not a plea to grant every aspirant a visa, but to make a case that people from every country deserve to be treated with courtesy and honour.

P.S. The Australian visa did come, after 48 days. So kangaroo lovers, apply early. Happy hopping!


The writer is a practising architect at BashaBari Ltd., a Commonwealth Scholar and a Fellow, a Baden-Powell Fellow Scout Leader, and a Major Donor Rotarian.


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