Your Guide to Filling Out Forms In India
You will spend most of your first three months in India filling out forms: visa, immigration, customs, mobile connection, internet, lease agreements, etc. Every country has its own peculiarities when it comes to filling out forms, but in India it is all about pleasing the Babu.
Babu is a term given to a government official who sees a lot of papers going across his desk. He signs it or stamps it and passes it along to the next person. If you know how to make your Babu happy, he will pass along your form. If you don’t, he may decide not to approve it.
Before we begin, here’s a story to introduce the topic:
There once was an American woman who was applying for a tourist visa to India. While she was an engineer by trade, she wanted to explore India and potentially write a book about her experiences. So she put down “Writer” on her visa application, mentioning her book aspirations.
Tourist visas are normally processed very quickly, but hers did not come for a couple of months. She went to the embassy to see what happened. Her application was being held up because being a writer meant she should be on the Journalist visa, but she did not have any other writing qualifications. After explaining her situation to the Indian official he arranged for the visa to be issued, and then gave her some advice. “Next time, just write ‘Tourist.’”
8 Ways to Please the Babu
1.) Remember that the form is for the Babu, not for you. As you question what to write in each section, ask yourself what the Babu would want to see there, not what you want to put.
2.) Keep it simple; don’t be complicated. The Babu hates complications. He wants you to be normal, not exceptional. Be as normal and as simple as possible.
An example: When you are going through immigration, there is a small slip on the bottom of your form that asks the value of dutiable goods. Some people will sit and think through all the things in their luggage and get out a calculator to see how much things might add up to. Then they write $157.
The Babu hates this.
The Babu loves it when you write Rs. 0. That is simple and easy. Unless you are actually bringing in a significant amount of dutiable goods, write Rs. 0.
Don’t complicate things with unnecessary details. Be accurate, be honest, but first be simple. No one is going to go through your luggage to check if you have $157 or $210 worth of goods.
If you do have an unavoidably complicated situation, do not put it on your official form. Put it in a separate request letter and mention it personally to the Babu and ask him to help you.
3.) Match everything. Everything you write should match up with the supporting documents EXACTLY. If your passport lists your name as Karen Lucile Allen, but you book tickets as Karen Allen, the Babu will raise his eyebrow and not be happy. Start using an “official name” where all of your documentation has the exact same names, spelling, and sequence. Similarly, always write your address the same way and ensure it is written the same on all your documentation.
If the Babu asks for your father’s name, but your parents died when you were young and someone else adopted you, give the name that is on your birth certificate. Remember, the Babu wants the form, not a story.
4.) Give the Babu just the right amount of information. If you give the Babu too much information, you will overfeed him and he may become grumpy and find things wrong with documents you didn’t need to give in the first place. If you give him too few documents, he will banish you and make you come back the next day with an additional sacrifice of new documents.
If you meet the Babu in person, only give him the exact forms he requests. In a separate folder, keep all your “just in case” documents (e.g. request letters, tax forms, driver’s license copies). Let the Babu ask for them one by one and then he will be happy that you came prepared.
If you are mailing documents to the Babu, send in everything he requests and anything that might explain something that is slightly out of the ordinary.
5.) No blanks. The Babu loves forms that are completely filled out. Don’t leave a blank, even if it seems redundant. Putting “N/A” is better than leaving it blank.
If you are filling out a form for a private company (like a mobile connection), then blanks are ok. In fact, only give the bare minimum amount of information. The private company is only concerned with scale and speed of processing new requests. He is not like the Babu.
6.) Be overly official. The Babu loves stamps, seals, and signatures as much as his mother’s chapatis. You should “self-attest” every copy of your personal documents, which means you sign it. If it is a company document, get someone to stamp it with the official company seal. Producing a document on “stamped paper” in a particular currency amount also make it much more official. (Ask your Chartered Accountant to get stamped paper.) Stamped paper makes the Babu’s eyes light up! If someone else signs a document for you, get a copy of their ID proof…and then get them to self-attest it! The Babu may even smile!
Your signature should look EXACTLY the same way every time and should be written only in black or blue ink. No variations. Don’t smudge your signature, and don’t try to correct it after you write it. If there is a box to put it in, do not go over the lines. Sometimes, they will ask you to start your signature on the paper and end it over the top of your photograph. The Babu loves when you do it exactly correct.
If you have a document that must be corrected by hand, the Babu will not be happy. The only way he will accept this defacement is if you put your initials as small as you can right next to the correction you have made.
7.) Don’t get upset. The Babu is just doing his job. If you were the one who came to India without the ministerial credentials of the pastor who signed your first marriage certificate, that is your own fault. Don’t blame things on the Babu, yell at him, or show you are upset with him. Be friendly and be patient. Have chai or coffee with him if you can. The Babu is a humble government servant.
8.) Be prepared for everything. Keep a printable scan handy of the following documents, ready to be produced at a moment’s notice: your passport, your Indian visa, your PAN card, your driver’s license, your car insurance certificate, your residence permit, your birth certificate, your marriage certificate, and your lease agreement.
Also, you should have a minimum of 8 Indian passport sized photos at your home and/or office at all times. These are ridiculously cheap in India, and you will need them for everything. Get at least 16 when you first land.
Ok, now the Babu is happy. But what if he still won’t accept my form?
Grey is White in India and “no” doesn’t always mean “no”. Rules can be up for interpretation. If the Babu does not accept something, don’t give up immediately, but politely ask him if there is anything else he can do. The Babu knows he has power that he may or may not publicly advertise, but he likes it when you show that you know he has it. Ask him to do a small favor. Ask him to accept it just this one time. Tell the whole story about how you ended up in this mess and all the hoops you have had to jump through to get here. Depending on his mood, you may get a nice reply.
Why does the Babu want to know my religion and father’s name all the time?
Read this post for a more detailed answer on religion. In essence, it is a way for the government to know what community you are from. It has nothing to do with your personal beliefs. If you are North American or European, the safest thing you can do is put “Christian”.
The Babu wants to know about your father as a quick background check and also because there are too many Lakshmis and Ravis out there. In South India, many people do not have a surname and only use their father’s name as an identifier.
When it comes to filling out forms in India, keep your Babu happy, and he will keep you happy.