Almost eight month after my application, I finally received my Indian research visa these days (proudly pictured to the right). I can assure you: the process is a very Indian one. Polite persistence, personal contact, and calling in favours from influential people works - shouting, being formalistic, or going on holiday in the meantime rather doesn't. Most importantly, it helps to know as much as possible about how the procedure should be - even if it invariably will turn out differently. Since there is very little information out there, however (I still remember how lost I felt when I started out), and a good bunch of outdated rumours abound (supervisors' tales from the early 70s etc), I decided to abstract from my experiences, readings, and conversations with colleagues - and to write this blog post. Consider it a return favour to the academic community for the tremendous help I received along the way, but don't take it as a definite guideline (in addition, read through here, here, and there, ask colleagues, and talk to your consulate, embassy and/or visa agency).

The starting point: Affiliation with an Indian institution. In order to do any resarch, you need to be affiliated with an Indian institution accredited by the University Grants Commission. Usually, this will be a university department to which you or your supervisor have good working relations (if not, don't hesitate to contact an internationally known professor in India with a short proposal of you research, and ask if he or she will be willing to support your case). In my case, I was affiliated at the Center for the Study of Social Systems at Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Most likely, your request for affiliation will have to be tabled at some faculty meeting, after which the registrar of the university has to fill a specific form (see attachment below; other forms won't be accepted by the ministry, so beware). Some fee will be asked for this, payable once your stay begins (at JNU, it is 100 USD per term of affiliation). The process is comparatively straightforward, takes about a month, and provides you with the first entrance key to your research visa.

The longest stretch: Authorization of the project. After your affiliation to an Indian institution, your project (and you) will be vetted politically by several ministries in Delhi. This part of the way tends to be tedious: you receive little information, can just wait, and can't really predict the outcome (even though blunt refusals of genuine projects are rare as far as I heard - delays are, however, common). If you have good contacts in the Indian bureaucracy, or someone who walks the rounds, this might be time you need them. Don't be dishearted, however, and don't believe in some of the old tales floating about the internet - the process apparently used to be horrible in the past, but it improved a lot. If in doubt, only believe colleagues and faculty members who applied in the last couple of years. 1 To start the process, make sure you have the requisite form (see attachment below) duly filled, a short project proposal of 6-8 pages (basically a shortened, jargon-free and politically uncontroversial version of your PhD proposal), and a passport picture on this very form. Make six sets of copies of all of this, then add a cover letter (preferably on university letterhead) and the original certificate of affiliation from your Indian host institution. Take a copy of your paperwork, and submit it either directly through the consulate or embassy responsible for your place of residence, or through the outsourced agency which nowadays handle visa matters for almost all Indian consulates and embassies. They will forward your paperwork to MHRD Delhi for approval; if there are any glitches, it might be further referred to MHA, or to a state ministry (which in my unlucky case seems to have happened). Unless the latter happened (i.e. as long as it only circulates within Delhi), you should get an authorization within 2-3 months. The consulate will get notified of it, they will notify the visa agency, and they will notify you (which might all in all take another month).

The important last mile: Application for the actual visa. Some things can still go wrong here, but you almost made it. If you apply in person, are persistent, and have the paperwork ready, it should be rather straightforward (a matter of days rather than weeks). You will need: the PDF which comes out of the online visa form (they only accept this one nowadays), a biometric passport picture 5x5cm, the required fees (ask at your ousourcing agency), and most likely one more copy of your affiliation and your application for authorization of the research project (ie all paperwork which you produced so far). The authorization letter iteself remains with the consulate officer who received it. Talking of this officer: it is not entirely clear how much discretionary power he or she still holds once the project is authorized by Delhi and likewise, it is not entirely clear if they ever grant more than one year directly (extendable in Delhi - the FAQ of MHA talks of three years as a standard as long as you ask for it - but that might not be the case - see below). But as I wrote before: be optimistic now. In my case, the spell was broken once I talked in person to the head of the outsourced visa agency, who was really helpful in shuffling my paperwork through. After months, I thus finally received: an actual research visa, valid for one year (extendable), multiple entries.2 (Almost) what I hoped for!

The few extra steps: Accompanying spouses. For those married, it will be interesting to note that the spouse of a research scholar can apply for a co-terminus entry visa, even though this rule is nowhere explicitly stated and not all consular officers or outsourced personnel might be aware of it. If in doubt, contact MHA for written confirmation, or ask me to forward the respective communication I had with MHA on this subject...

In retrospect, it is a long process, and a considerable bureaucratic effort. It is sometimes hard to ascertain what (if anything) happens at any given point in time, and which considerations come into play by whom. The procedure is tedious, it can get at your nerves, and makes you want to reconsider your choice of fieldsite. It is, however, India's sovereign prerogative to check up thoroughly on anyone who whishes to do research there - and, to turn political for a moment: it ought to be that way. I could have flunked the rules, and know that some people do this - but I am not in favour of it, even if this might speed up the process. For me, this is a fundamental question of respect in the politics of post-colonial global academia. There is no harm in being strategic and informed, but if this is the process, it is the process. Just assume how it will be the other way round - I can assure you, latest since I worked for the German Embassy in Dhaka, Bangladesh, how very difficult it is for South Asians to obtain any visa for Europe at all. Let alone a visa which permits them to live in sensitive places stalking interview partners, drawing maps, and enquiring about all kinds of things...

A final caveat: everything I said is subject to change and probably not applicable to other academic disciplines. If it helped you, let me know. If you had different experiences, please add them with the comment function below...

  • 1. In fact, there are rumours (unconfirmed) that the whole process has changed in summer 2011, in that consulates and embassies now issue a one-year research visa without major background checks - which would only be entered once you try to extend the validity of your visa in the country itself (this probably only holds true in specific cases, such as short-term research, specific topics, specific disciplines). Please let me know if you found any official confirmation for this potential new practice...
  • 2. On the issue of entries: there are rumours that one has to enter India within four weeks of the date of issue of a research visa. No such endorsement was made on my visa, and I was not able to confirm this information online. Please let me know if you know something about it.