Sushma Swaraj has been subjected to some vile and abominable insults from abusive handles on the Lucknow passport officer controversy. Swaraj, who handles the external affairs portfolio in the Narendra Modi Cabinet, is a hugely popular minister. And rightly so. During her four-year tenure, she has completely changed the perception about her ministry: Removed the snobbery, inefficiency and brought it closer to people. She has led by example when it comes to using social media for governance. Indians around the world believe that no matter the difficulty they are in, help is just a tweet away.

Having returned from a seven-day tour of Europe, the minister ran into a controversy over the transfer of a Lucknow passport official who allegedly “harassed” an “inter-faith” couple over renewal of their passport. Swaraj received stinging criticism from a section of the Twitterverse over her ministry’s handling of the affair. She claimed she was unaware of the details but on a sarcastic note, proceeded to highlight some of the loathsome abuses thrown at her.

Some of the tweets (which she later deleted) were personal in nature and terribly abusive. Some even referred to a kidney replacement surgery which the minister underwent in 2016. No condemnation is strong enough for such depravity. No one should suffer such degenerate behaviour that may have a ruinous effect on one’s life. One hopes and believes that the minister is strong enough to take it in her stride. The incident is a sad reflection of the way abuse, threats and bullying have come to dominate the discourse on social media and shrank the space for civilised debate.

File image of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. AP

File image of External Affairs Minister Sushma Swaraj. AP

Yet, reclaiming this space is of vital importance. As much as the abuse directed at the minister must be condemned with all the strength at our command, it should not distract from the larger issue. The government has seemingly goofed up in its handling of the issue and must be held (politely but firmly) accountable. The dominant media narrative holds that a couple from Noida was allegedly harassed by a passport official, and when the media brought this to light, the “inter-faith” couple received their passports and the “bigoted” official received his just desserts.

However, on closer scrutiny, this narrative appears to be riddled with holes and the external affairs ministry’s decision to take prompt penal action against Vikas Mishra, the official, raises more questions than answers and reeks of serious judgmental lapses. To recall, reports emerged that a passport official in Lucknow apparently asked Tanvi Seth, who is married to one Anas Siddiqui, to change her name during renewal of her passport and had even asked her husband to “convert”. “I was told my passport cannot be made because I have married a Muslim and did not change my name. I asked what I should do now. So I was told to change my name in all documents,” Seth was quoted, as saying in a NDTV report.

The officer apparently spoke to her in a “very humiliating manner”. She also said that “a lot of people were staring at me because that officer was very loud. I was in tears,” according to the report. Her husband Anas told News18: “My wife’s turn came before me and as soon as she reached counter C5, an officer named Vikas Mishra started to go through her documents. When he read the spouse’s name as Mohd Anas Siddiqui, he started shouting at her and said that she should not have married me. My wife broke into tears, after which Mr Mishra said that she should get all the documents corrected with a changed name.”

Further in the report, he was quoted, as saying: “…Then the passport officer asked her to go to the APO office and that he is sending her file to the APO. Mr Mishra then called me and started humiliating me. He said that I will have to convert to Hinduism else my marriage won’t be accepted…” Tanvi, who along with her husband is employed at a multinational firm, then tagged Sushma Swaraj in a series of tweets and related her ordeal, also describing how renewal of their passports have been “put on hold”.

Amid a media furore — Stamped by bigotry: Passport officer asks Muslim man to convert to Hinduism, MEA promises actionPassport Officer Shames A Hindu-Muslim Couple, Rejects Application, And Tells Husband To Convert To Hinduism; Passport Officer Rejects Hindu-Muslim Couple’s Application, Asks Man to Convert to Hinduism  — the MEA intervened. Mishra was summarily transferred, served with a show cause notice and asked to apologise. Regional passport officer told media that “necessary action” will be taken against the official. The couple’s passports were renewed.

The passport officer in the eye of the storm, however, had an entirely different story to tell. He claimed that the lady had a different name in her ‘nikahnama’ (Islamic marriage contract) as against the other documents furnished by her, and as a procedural measure he had asked her to endorse it. “She was showing nikahnama that had her name as ‘Shazia Anas’ but had said on documents that she has not changed her name. Why did she not endorse this on paper? I asked her to endorse her ‘nikah’ name, but she said she did not want to do that, which is when I sent her to the higher official,” Mishra was quoted, as saying by The Times of India in another report. He also denied ever saying that “it is a duty for a woman to get her name changed after marriage” or telling the husband he should “convert to Hinduism”.

A point needs to be mentioned here. Passport application or renewal forms issued by the passport office require details that include a disclosure whether the applicant has been known by any other name (aliases).

Passport application form. Image courtesy: Government of India

Passport application form. Image courtesy: Government of India

Mishra insisted that Tanvi produced her nikahnama (which is a legal document) as proof while applying for passport renewal but refused to place the name ‘Shadia Anas’ on record during the renewal procedure.

If documents furnished during passport application or renewal throw up a name mismatch then it is the duty of the passport officer to point out the anomalies and seek an explanation. This procedural measure has been put in place to ensure that passport — which is a legal document — cannot be obtained through fraudulent means. In fact, if the officer in charge fails to do these verifications then he is liable to be charged for dereliction of duty. The passport officer claimed that he was abiding by the rules and the husband-wife duo were “misrepresenting facts”. He also claimed that the couple threatened him of “bitter consequences” if he refused to comply with their demands.

The couple alleged Mishra “shouted” at them and asked Anas to convert. Mishra has denied the charges. An eyewitness who was present during Wednesday’s incident disagreed with the couple’s version of events.

Another story by ABP News quotes Kuldeep Singh, the eyewitness, as saying: “The officer was only talking about the documents. He was trying to say that there was some problems with the documents. The lady was not in agreement with the officer and she was talking loudly…”

In between, Singh, who came forward as the eyewitness to the passport controversy, told India Today he was kidnapped at gunpoint, sedated and somehow managed to escape. The report says he was kidnapped on Saturday afternoon by three people and fainted after being sedated in the car. “When I regained consciousness I saw the kidnappers having tea at a shop somewhere. Somehow I managed to flee from the car and went straight to a nearby police post with the help of locals. Later on I found out I was in Lakhimpur Kheri district… I am getting a case filed at Jankiupuram police station,” he was quoted, as saying.

The curious chain of claims and counter-claims demand a thorough investigation. This is where the government must answer several questions. When such contrarian claims have emerged, why did the ministry of external affairs jump the gun in transferring Mishra and slapping a show cause notice on him before conducting a thorough investigation?

If, after an inquiry, it is found that Siddiqui and Seth were lying, how would the ministry justify its move to punish an official who was doing his duty? Also, in light of so many conflicting versions, why was the couple’s passports so hastily renewed? Will media outrage now be established as a new norm for passport issuance? Doesn’t this set a dangerous precedent on a very sensitive issue that also involves national security?

Swaraj’s actions must also be held to equal scrutiny. As the minister in-charge of external affairs portfolio, the final responsibility rests at her door. By publicly highlighting some rotten abuses from the lowest common denominator, she is positioning herself as the victim and trying to deflect attention from the unanswered questions and judgmental lapses that may have occurred at the ministry’s decision-making level. The abuses are a huge, unsolved problem but these cannot be held as the touchstone for all criticisms coming her way: Some of which is legitimate, civil and fair.

Swaraj has also unwittingly made it easier for her political rivals to score a few brownie points. Congress hasn’t wasted the opportunity. The minister has successfully refocused the debate in such a way that all unanswered questions on the controversy will now be swept under the carpet.