Like most people, my passport is a document that's enabled me to study, work, travel and live right around the world. But unlike most people, it's awarded me the respect reserved for the 'white' man in a world of post-colonial discrimination and institutional racism. Rather ironic, because I'm as 'brown' as they come.
My life has been a series of opportunities afforded to me merely because my Indian parents decided to emigrate to Sweden before I was born. That single move has affected the trajectory of my life and opened up possibilities I'm only now beginning to appreciate.
The Independent recently published an article ranking the Swedish passport as the world's most powerful, based on a number of factors including visa-free travel across international borders and affordability. As a child growing up in Sweden in the 1980's I had little understanding of the full weight of my small travel document, but that's because its strengths and benefits had yet to kick in for me.
Fast forward to 1995 and I'm 15 years old. Sweden had just joined the European Union and overnight my Swedish passport became far more powerful that it was before, affording me the right to travel, work and live in any of its member states. And as Europe continued to expand and integrate, more restrictions were placed on citizens from the rest of the world, notably India. As an Indian citizen it became harder and harder to move freely around the world. My passport wasn't just making me part of a global elite but it was also driving a wedge between me and my Indian countrymen. This gulf manifested itself when my Indian-passport-carrying surgeon uncle was invited to speak at a conference in Stockholm. He applied for the necessary visa through the Swedish embassy in New Delhi but requested to stay on in Sweden for a few days to visit his sister, my mother, who's a Swedish citizen. His application was denied. A respected medical doctor was prevented from visiting his own family. I suspect if he'd held a British, American or Australian passport, the outcome might have been different.
As a teenager in 1997 I was living in India, busy thinking about my future after school. What university should I go to? And where? Looking back, my Indian cousins would have had a much harder time with limited choices. India is a notoriously tough academic environment. Securing a seat at university can drive youngsters (and their parents) to a nervous breakdown, or worse. But my Swedish passport meant I could apply to any university in Europe and qualify as a 'home' student while my Indian counterparts would have to fork out exorbitant tuition fees as 'overseas' applicants. I ended up studying in the UK, paying the same as someone born and raised there. Yet before I set foot in London to study I had absolutely no connection to the UK. So what makes me, a Swedish citizen of Indian descent, any less of an 'overseas' student than an Indian citizen? Answer: my passport.
I met many Indians during the course of my studies in the UK, and by that I mean Indian passport holders, with pockets deep enough to be able to study abroad. They often worried what they would do once their studies were over. The terms of their visas generally meant they had to leave the UK upon completion of their degrees. I had no such worry. Why? My passport.
Years later I found myself living and working in a Middle Eastern country where expatriate salaries are based on nationality. So citizens of European countries, the US, Australia and New Zealand, are offered more money for doing the same job as citizens of African and Asian countries, including India. So yet again, my passport overrode my ethnicity, awarding me the benefits of the 'white' man, in this case a better compensation package at the expense of someone from the developing world.
A European or American passport is a coveted thing in India. Families spend their life-savings trying to emigrate. And it's not because Indians don't love their country. They do. It's because they know all too well that in a post-colonial age where power resides in the hands of the few, certain passports give automatic membership into the global elite, opening doors for them and their children that would otherwise remain closed.
I had always taken my citizenship for granted. To me it seemed natural to be able to travel, live, study and work overseas and be treated with respect every time I presented my passport. It's taken me 35 years to truly appreciate what I have. My options and choices have been shaped by my passport. I owe a great debt of gratitude to this small unassuming document that wield's such power and influence over my life.