There are an estimated 25 million non-resident Indians (NRIs, PIOs and OCIs) spread across more than 200 countries, contributing a massive $70 billion in remittances to India in 2013-14. This figure is substantially more than India’s two-way trade between countries like Australia and China.
Overseas Indians encompass NRIs (Non-Resident Indian), PIOs (Person of Indian Origin) and OCIs (Overseas Citizen of Indian). Definitions of these acronyms can be found at Ministry of Overseas Indian Affairs website. The recent changes in PIO card and OCI cards, announced by Prime Minister NarendraModi in Madison Square Garden, New York, are welcome, but do not meet the long-term demand of dual citizenship by overseas Indians all over the world. The Overseas Citizenship Card of India falls well short of genuine dual citizenship.
Overseas Indians have been demanding genuine dual citizenship, with full political and economic rights in India, on par with the rights enjoyed by Indian citizens. Former Attorney General of India Soli Sorabjee was right in saying at a conference in 2005, “If we want to involve the diaspora then we can’t deny them the right to vote or the right to occupy important office”.
Citizenship means citizenship, and it should include full political and economic rights as is the case with the majority of the democratic countries that offer dual citizenship to its citizens or permit their citizens to hold on to their citizenship when they apply for foreign citizenship.
Overseas Indians, whether they hold Indian passports or have overseas passports, love India. They have an emotional bond with India. They are no less patriotic than Indians living in India. This is true for a great majority of people of Indian heritage.
When major democratic and developed countries have no issue with dual citizenship, there cannot be a real justification for India to treat its own people unfavorably by divesting citizenship merely upon acquisition of citizenship of a foreign country. It does not make any sense in the era of the global village and transnationalism.
The world is a global village, and India, like other countries, needs to take into account how other nations are looking after its diaspora. The Indian government’s policy of denying dual citizenship and making its citizens relinquish Indian passports at the time of acquiring foreign citizenship is a major source of avoidable and unnecessary disappointment and emotional distress.
Let us remind ourselves of the promise of dual citizenship made by former Prime Minister AtalBehari Vajpayee in 2003.
Since then there have been statements from senior politicians like NitinGadkari, (BJP President visiting UK in 2011) and Praful Patel with SharadPawar (NCP politicians while visiting USA in 2010) that they favour dual citizenship for overseas Indians, but the matter has not progressed further. The BJP has also been in favour of granting convenient voting rights to NRIs via postal, online or voting at the Consulate/Embassies/High Commissions.
Statements are not enough. Practical actions should be taken to allow:
1. granting of Indian passports (dual citizenship) to overseas citizens of Indian heritage with full rights including voting and political rights;
2. granting of convenient voting rights to such dual passport holding overseas Indians as well as overseas Indians with Indian passports (NRIs), which can be exercised either at the consulate, high commission or embassy premises in their country of residence and through postal or online facilities, instead of requiring them to be physically present in India to vote on the polling day, which is practically very inconvenient, and financially prohibitive.
Former prime minister A B Vajpayee’s promise should be delivered. Prime Minister Modi can do it because he has the political capital and the goodwill from and for overseas Indians to deliver this long overdue, and deserving demand.
Many countries like UK, Australia, USA, New Zealand, Canada, Switzerland, Finland and France see no issue in dual-citizenship, and these countries are no less security-conscious, if that was the reason why India is reluctant to offer dual-citizenship.
There is nothing wrong if some overseas Indians with dual citizenship do decide to contest elections and become MPs or MLAs in India. There is nothing to worry if that does indeed happen. People with overseas experience and exposure will only help improve policy formation and implementation.
India might consider taking the cue from Australia, which repealed Section 17 of the Australian Citizenship Act 1948 with effect from 4 April 2002, permitting dual citizenship. Similarly, India can amend relevant Acts to allow dual citizenship. With its strength in Parliament, the NDA Govt can easily do it too.
If Prime Minister Modi had asked the 18,000 Indians in Madison Square Garden or asks the 16,000 cheering Indians in Olympic Park in Sydney on 17 November, he will not have any doubt that overseas Indians want India to grant dual citizenship to them.
Nobody can argue against India’s right to deny granting dual passport to someone with security issues, but blanket denial of dual-citizenship to the huge majority of patriotic Indians living overseas is not pragmatic in the current era.
Undoubtedly, overseas Indians are a big asset for India. Their contributions have been spectacular, whether it was supporting India with the resurgent India Bond to ameliorate sanctions on India after the Pokhran nuclear tests in 1998 or helping ink the Indo-American nuclear deal. The Indian community, whether it is in the UK, USA or Australia, is a force to reckon with, and it is smart policy to continue engaging with it in a meaningful way. Genuine dual citizenship is certainly one such policy.
Dr Yadu Singh is a Sydney based cardiologist and the President of Indian Australian Association of NSW. He writes a blog www.yadusingh.wordpress.com
This article was originally published in The Economic Times, New Delhi