When India closed its external borders in March to foreign nationals, it made exceptions for diplomats, those working for multilateral institutions and even those with valid work permits. However, Overseas Citizens of India or OCIs were denied the privilege of coming back to India. One can never be sure if this was an oversight or deliberate policy. Also OCIs are not able to take advantage of the Vande Bharat repatriation mission, which is bringing back stranded Indians.
There is often a stereotype associated with Indians who have taken foreign citizenship. They are assumed to have condescending attitudes towards those left behind in the motherland and patronise the ‘natives.’ Almost every family in Kerala has the annoying cousin, who on his or her annual visit to India, talks of the paradise that the adopted country is. At a time when few Indians travelled abroad and YouTube did not exist, it was easy to take such people for face value. Those who find such cousins or relatives annoying are probably not making any attempt to hide their teeth at the fact that such people are effectively banned from entering India for the near future.
Thankfully, not all OCIs belong to the above category. There are some, who felt that holding on to an Indian passport restricted their freedom to travel to third countries and hence stunted their career growth prospects. Many of these people are first generation immigrants who have elderly family members in India. As someone who was raised in New York, this writer personally knows people in the Malayali diaspora who are eager to be with their parents in these unpredictable days. Since they are US citizens, it’s virtually impossible to visit India now.
Other OCIs actually live full time in India and are employed here. Those who had the misfortune to be out of the country at the time the borders were closed find themselves separated from their children. Like many upper middle class Indians, they can continue to work remotely for the time being, but this separation from their loved ones is traumatic to say the least.
No country is under any kind of obligation to allow entry to holders of permanent resident permits or visas, yet many have done so willingly keeping humanitarian factors in mind. However, there is a clear difference between citizenship and permanent residency, even in the form of schemes such as OCI. A citizen has a guaranteed right to enter his or her country, except under the kind of exceptional circumstances that we are facing today. It is also very difficult to strip a person of citizenship, albeit when the person has dual citizenship, a stripping state does not render such a person ‘stateless.’
It’s easy to understand why a newly-independent India refused to allow dual citizenship decades ago. The country struggled to free itself from the tyranny of the British Empire and feared that dual citizenship would in some way enable a foreign country to control India through the back door. But in 2020, India, with a population touching 1.3 billion, is no way a global pushover that can be colonised indirectly. It is a country that could very well use the services of new citizens educated in some of the world’s best institutes of higher learning and have the technological know-how to help millions in India. Attempts should be made to welcome those foreigners who are willing to embrace Indian citizenship and contribute to our melting pot of cultures.
More than 60 countries allow dual citizenship at the moment. This includes places that have a significant Indian presence such as the United States, Canada, the UK and Australia. In South Asia, Pakistan and Bangladesh offer dual citizenship, and Sri Lanka also has certain provisions. Why is it that India should be so stringent and inflexible in this regard? The Indian diaspora is one of the country’s greatest assets and all kinds of attempts should be made to integrate it with India. People with dual citizenship would find themselves as greater stakeholders in the development of the country, and would also never face a situation where they get stranded abroad and are at the back of the line when coming to India.
In the meantime one can only hope that the authorities in Delhi feel some sense of compassion for those OCIs who are separated from their loved ones and want to be back in the ‘motherland.'
(Ajay Kamalakaran is the author of Globetrotting for Love and Other Stories from Sakhalin Island)