Ever since the government of India and the Indian diaspora rediscovered each other during the days of prime minister Rajiv Gandhi, the government’s expectations and the diaspora's aspirations have been escalating. Contrary to the policy laid down by his grandfather Jawaharlal Nehru, Rajiv Gandhi declared that people of Indian origin, regardless of their present citizenship, should become partners in India’s development. He invited them to contribute resources like financial remittance and investment, technology and academics to India as a responsibility to the motherland. The response was not overwhelming, but a new trend began. Remittances and investments increased and many groups began taking interest in India’s development. In countries like the US and the UK, the diaspora began playing a role for improving bilateral relations with India. The government realized that it was necessary to provide incentives to the diaspora to look to India as a destination of its investments and to protect Indian interests abroad.
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Among the many demands made by the diaspora was for dual citizenship, in which a person is concurrently regarded as a citizen of more than one state under the laws of those states. There is no international convention which determines the nationality or citizen status of a person, which is defined exclusively by national laws, which vary and can be inconsistent with each other. Various countries use different, and not necessarily mutually exclusive, criteria for citizenship. Some countries do not permit dual citizenship. This may be by requiring an applicant for naturalization to renounce all existing citizenship, or by withdrawing its citizenship from someone who voluntarily acquires another citizenship, or by other devices. Some countries do not permit a renunciation of citizenship. Some countries permit a general dual citizenship while others permit dual citizenship, but only of a limited number of countries. Most countries that permit dual citizenship still may not recognize the other citizenship of its nationals within its own territory, for example, in relation to entry into the country, national service, duty to vote, etc. Similarly, it may not permit consular access by another country for a person who is also its national. Some countries prohibit dual citizenship holders from serving in their military, on police forces or holding certain public offices.
Considering the complexities involved in granting Indian citizenship simultaneously to persons of Indian origin, who have acquired other nationalities, the government initially rejected the idea, but the demand for it persisted and the government decided to look for ways and means to give the diaspora some of the privileges of Indian citizenship without granting dual citizenship. After several years of examination of this matter from various angles such as legal, security and bilateral relations with affected countries, the government under prime minister A.B. Vajpayee came up with the Persons of Indian Origin (PIO) card as a measure to meet the demand for dual citizenship halfway. This card entitled foreign citizens to travel to India without visa and to own some categories of immovable properties in India. It also removed the requirement of foreigners to report to the police if they stay for long periods. The card was a major concession for those who felt alienated because of the various restrictions on foreign visitors. More than anything else, the sentimental objection to seek visa to visit the mother country was removed.
The PIO card was generally welcomed, but it was also criticized by the diaspora. The government had originally planned to charge a considerable sum of money for the card on the understanding that money would be no constraint for the overseas Indians. But even a reasonable charge imposed became a bone of contention. It was argued that it would be cheaper to pay for the visa rather than get the PIO card. The charge was reduced to less than one third as a result, but still there was dissatisfaction that the card did not equate the holders with Indian citizens. The demand for the cards was much lower than expected. In Washington, I faced demands for reduction of charges for families and senior citizens. The criteria for entitlement of the card were also called into question. The PIO card turned out to be unsatisfactory to many Indians, particularly in the United States.
In the face of continuing demands for dual citizenship even after the introduction of the PIO card, other possibilities were explored by the government and it eventually came up with the Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card. This was not very different from the PIO card, but the words “Citizen of India” satisfied the sentimental need of some of the people. In addition, OCI card does not need to be renewed. But the OCI card, which looked like an Indian passport, had to be used with a foreign passport, on which a lifelong visa was stamped. This created great confusion when the foreign passport was replaced and the visitors did not bring the old passport with them. There were many cases of OCI card holders being denied entry for not producing the Indian visa on the foreign passport. This created an outcry against the OCI card.
The facilities for the OCI card holders were increased further and merged with the PIO cards to meet the demands of the diaspora and today, the OCI card holders are given parity with Indian citizens in respect of all facilities available in economic and financial areas except owning agricultural and plantation properties. In the academic field, the OCI card holders need to seek permission only for research. The need for a visa stamp on the foreign passport has also been dispensed with. Prime minister Narendra Modi, who is particularly friendly with the diaspora, has an open mind on this issue and further concessions may follow. He gave some indications of this at the Bengaluru Pravasi Bharatiya Divas. A significant concession was that there would be no discrimination between Indian citizens and overseas Indians in matters relating to investment.
The fact remains that the diaspora, particularly in countries like the US and the UK, will not be satisfied unless dual citizenship is granted to them. The various concessions made so far are appreciated, but their ultimate objective is to enjoy the best of both worlds by having two passports, which can be used at their discretion to gain the most advantage. But dual citizenship is not likely to materialize because of complications such as dual loyalty, voting rights, regulations of the host countries and Indian constitutional provisions on citizenship. The dissatisfaction will persist in the diaspora till a way is found to overcome these objections.
(The author is a former diplomat who writes on India's external relations and the Indian diaspora.)