I have been a witness to and a participant in the evolution of India’s policy towards overseas Indians from the days when Indian migrants in foreign countries were supposed to owe their allegiance to their countries of adoption to the present day when Governments are vying with each other to cultivate the diaspora and to give them concession after concession to earn their goodwill and support in various ways. The overseas Indians and India began discovering each other at the time of Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister when he sought resources, technology and participation in development from Indians abroad, regardless of the passports they held. Indian missions were instructed to identify people of talent and wealth to help India. The response was not overwhelming, but quite a few like Sam Pitroda came to India and helped transform telecommunication in India. Others began to advance Indian interests in their countries through lobbying and building up India interests groups.
As the Indian community got close to the authorities in India, it began to demand various concessions for themselves during travels to India and the Government responded in various ways. Annual meetings of Indians hosted in India, awards for prominent Indians and special facilities for travel in India were some of the measures taken. Gradually, they began to demand dual citizenship on the pattern of Israel and some other countries where citizens could hold more than one passport for ease of travel and investing. The matter was studied by successive Governments, who discovered that the Indian constitution prohibited dual citizenship on the principle that dual loyalty was not considered desirable.
PIO vs OCI
Though the overseas Indians saw the constitutional position, they began asking for something like the American Green card which would enable them to work and invest in India like Indian citizens. The Person of Indian Origin (PIO) cards were devised for the purpose and these cards enabled them to visit India without a visa for 20 years by paying a certain fee. Surprisingly, the charges levied were considered excessive by the community and there were not many takers for the PIO cards. The charges were reduced, but still the pressure for dual citizenship increased whenever a new Government took over in India. After further consultations and legal considerations, certain categories of foreign passport holders were entitled to be designated as Overseas Citizens of India (OCI). Though the word, ‘citizen’ is used, it was clarified that it was not a citizenship, but foreign nationals of Indian origin with certain privileges.
Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) is a form of permanent residency available to people of Indian origin and their spouses which allow them to live and work in India indefinitely. Despite the name, OCI status is not citizenship and does not grant the right to vote in Indian elections or hold public office. The Indian government can revoke OCI status in a wide variety of circumstances. The OCI scheme was introduced by The Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2005. As of 2020, there are 6 million OCI cardholders among the diaspora. It provides overseas Indian-origin citizens many of the rights available to resident citizens. OCI status is not available to anyone who has ever been a Pakistani or Bangladeshi citizen, or who is a child, grandchild, or great-grandchild of such a person. For all practical purposes, OCI cardholders are those with an indefinite Indian visa affixed on their foreign passports. They cannot travel to India without a current foreign passport and an Indian visa. But they were exempted from reporting to the authorities and their length of stay was unrestricted. The benefits are being used extensively by the cardholders.
Limits to privileges
Some problems arose in the use of the OCI card when some holders were found engaging in activities prejudicial to India. The cards were withdrawn in certain cases and this was considered curtailment of their rights as “citizens” and protests were made in India and abroad. Consequently, the Government changed the rules for OCI cardholders. As per the new rules, any OCI cardholder who wishes to be involved in missionary, 'tablighi' or journalistic activities, will have to obtain a special permission from the government. The notification issued by the MHA said that OCI cardholders will have to take special permission from the Foreign Regional Registration Office (FRRO). In addition to this, overseas Indians will have to take permission for internship with foreign missions or to visit a prohibited area.
The notification also has some benefits for OCI cardholders. It has given them parity with Indian nationals in domestic airfare tariffs or entry fees for national monuments, parks and museums in India.
Though the new restrictions are quite legitimate and even citizens can be subject to security restrictions, when necessary, there has been considerable opposition to the changes as it hinges on the citizenship rules which are being discussed in a different context. But the Government is not likely to relent on this issue. The activities listed are likely to attract negative reactions in India and it is in the interests of the OCI cardholders themselves to be armed with the required permissions before visiting India.
The OCI system was anyway devised to meet the sentimental demand of people of Indian origin to be treated like citizens and not to give them citizenship. Any changes that the Government makes in these rules for security considerations should be accepted by the holders.