Last month, when Deepti Tamhane was relocating from Mumbai to London, her mind was marbled with thoughts of the future.
Along with her husband and two children, she boarded the flight with a heavy heart. She was leaving behind a country she had spent many years in and which was just starting to recover from a devastating second wave of COVID-19. But she was also grateful to have her kids be able to go to a brick-and-mortar school in London, as opposed to the many months of online schooling they had behind them in India.
Tamhane expected the move to a new country amid a global pandemic to be tough. What she didn’t expect was that her travel story would take the internet by storm.
“We were waiting for India to move out of the Red list, but we weren’t sure how long it would take. So we decided to route through Serbia to avoid hotel quarantine [in London],” Tamhane told VICE.
Back in July, many countries were either cancelling flights from India or restricting Indian travellers with mandatory tests and quarantines. All this, amid a vaccine shortage in the world’s second most populated country. At the time, India had administered at least one dose to 22.4 percent of its population but only 5.3 percent of the entire population had been fully vaccinated.
The Tamhanes, fortunately, had received both their doses of Covishield, an Indian version of the Oxford-AstraZeneca’s AZD-1222 formulation and the principal vaccine being used in India’s mass immunisation drive. Other vaccines available in India, such as Sputnik and Covaxin, were not being accepted abroad.
The family first arrived at Frankfurt airport after which they were to fly to Belgrade in Serbia and from there, to London. “That morning, we learned that Serbia had banned Indians from entering. So we made our way to the airline customer service desk, where we were asked for our documents and, of course, our vaccine certificate,” said Tamhane.
What followed was an exchange so strange, it couldn’t be fiction.
“The woman at the desk saw the photograph on the certificate, then looked at me and then back at the certificate,” said Tamhane. “I could tell she was suspicious of me. She angrily asked how I could submit this vaccine certificate when the photo on the document was not mine. She called a colleague to the counter. He too did a double take and repeated what she had said, that the photo on the document was completely different.”
An example of what India's Covid-19 vaccine certificate looks like, with personal details blocked out here.
Tamhane was initially confused about what this meant.
And then, the lady pointed to a picture on her vaccine certificate that was actually that of India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi.
Tamhane tried explaining to her that the picture was obviously not hers. “The woman at the customer service desk was so shocked. She looked at my vaccine certificate over and over again. She told me that she deals with passengers day in and day out, but this was the first time she had seen any prime minister’s photo on a personal document. She thought we were committing a fraud.”
Modi’s photo on the vaccine certificate has been the subject of much debate as India became probably the first and only country whose head of state is using the vaccination drive as an opportunity to promote himself and his politics.
The provisional certificates issued by the Indian Health Ministry prominently feature Modi, along with pithy encouragements in English and Hindi saying “Together, India Will Defeat Covid-19” and “Davai Bhi Aur Kadai Bhi (medicines as well as rigour).”
Opposition parties such as the Indian National Congress saw the use of the Prime Minister’s photograph as a ploy to influence voters before upcoming elections in several states. Not surprisingly, the Election Commission of India had to intervene and ask that the photo be taken down in those states. The photo became a hot topic of discussion in the Indian Parliament and effectively polarised Twitter.
Tamhane’s Facebook post narrating this incident went viral on Facebook and Twitter.
It got picked up by various local news publications, and its screenshots were shared on WhatsApp all over the country. On Reddit’s India thread, too, users had a field day discussing the matter.
More stories like Tamhane’s started to emerge. Reddit user Jujhar Singh’s friend, Nishan, was also stopped by airport authorities in Serbia over the “wrong” photograph on his vaccine certificate. He was planning to quarantine himself in Serbia, which was a quarantining hotspot for Indians after the U.S. and Canada banned their direct entry. After explaining the situation, they all had a good laugh and moved on with their lives.
Dheeraj, a Reddit user who works as an engineering manager for a tech company in central Europe, had gotten his vaccine certificate in India while visiting his family. Dheeraj’s name has been changed for this story because he didn’t wish to be identified.
“I saw the certificate way before I was vaccinated because some people started posting it on their social media, and I found it to be extremely strange, as most people would,” he told VICE. “It was hilarious and sad at the same time. How petty can you get? This is a display of partly the ego of the PM and partly marketing. I showed my own certificate to a colleague and he couldn’t believe that it carried our prime minister’s picture. He called over a dozen other colleagues to have a look and they all had a good laugh. But I guess most Indians wouldn’t find anything wrong with this, given how our hoardings carry photographs of our politicians all the time.”
Political party hoardings and banners in public spaces – authorised or not – are so common in India that you’re bound to spot one around every corner. As it happens, politics is played even on the hoarding canvas: the more senior the party leader, the bigger the splash of his photograph.
Recently, Modi’s photograph found itself in another place it didn’t need to be. At an event meant to celebrate medal winners at the Tokyo Olympics, an oversized image of Modi occupied the stage banner, which also carried notably smaller images of the winners.
In another popular post, a coder on Reddit, @glorious_albus on the r/India forum, has written a script that can help the user replace Modi’s image with that of the Indian flag. He lists the script with step-by-step instructions for set-up.
Another user, @theguywhomakesai, has made an easy-to-use website for the same purpose. The website renders all other information, including the QR code, intact, but without the Prime Minister’s face.
However, most people are sceptical about tampering with official documents.
Rohin Garg of the Internet Freedom Foundation explained that since the beneficiary reference ID and the QR code would still be there on the certificate with the Indian flag, there would still be some way to authenticate it, and to that extent, the certificate would still work. “However, this would of course look different compared to a ‘regular’ vaccine certificate, and so it may be the case that the modified certificates end up being rejected,” Garg told VICE.
Tamhane never expected her post to blow up like it did. “The PM’s photo on the certificate is an advertisement,” she said. “The vaccine certificate is an important document. In the future, it’s going to be used as a sort of vaccine passport. At first glance, people only see and verify the photo, and only after that, they read more information. The certificate has your name, age, passport number or Aadhar number; it can be used as identification proof. Is it right that such a personal document should carry someone else’s photo?”
Just some days ago, junior health minister, Bharati Pravin Pawar, tried to justify the inclusion of Modi’s photo, saying it was meant “to create awareness” and was “in the larger public interest.” The minister said the photo is there to remind Indians to continue COVID-appropriate behaviours even after they receive their vaccination.
But on the photo itself, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who is meant to be encouraging COVID-appropriate behaviours, cracks a smile at us. We see his face without a mask.
Follow Eisha Nair on Twitter.