By Sangay Mishra
India announced its first round of COVID-19 international travel restrictions on March 11, banning foreigners travelling to India on visas except those on diplomatic, UN/international organisations, long-term employment, and project visas.
Surprisingly, the order imposed a complete travel ban on OCI (Overseas Citizenship of India) cardholders or immigrants from India who hold citizenship of another country. The OCI card allows them visa-free unrestricted travel to India and to live, work, and acquire property in India with some restrictions.
The travel restriction on OCI cardholders — estimated to number 3.4 million — was a shock to many in the diaspora. The impact was dramatically exemplified by social media stories of students of Indian descent with OCI cards not being allowed to go back to families in India after March 12. Indian citizens with H1B visas in the US also could not travel to India because they had small children with OCI cards.
Though the restrictions were modified after more than two months, the travel ban on OCI cardholders was particularly ironic given that Prime Minister Narendra Modi is considered to be a champion of the Indian diaspora. Besides, the ban revealed the contradictory nature of the OCI status, which is meant to provide more rights to the diaspora but contains restrictive stipulations informed by a suspicion of the diaspora.
Why should the diaspora with foreign citizenship (and OCI status) be treated differently from a foreigner in a time of health crisis? The answer lies in understanding the lived duality of immigrant existence that has led to a global emergence of dual citizenship.
Immigrant-receiving countries in Europe and North America have had immigrant communities hesitant to naturalise there because that meant losing home country citizenship, something they desired to maintain. Immigrant-sending countries, particularly in Latin America, have also shown eagerness to connect immigrants with their home countries. Dual citizenship thus expanded as countries developed policies that were inclusive of immigrants in both countries of settlement and origin. Approximately 75 per cent of all nation states have come to accept dual citizenship. India, however, mandates giving up Indian citizenship upon acquiring another country’s citizenship.
Since the last 30 years, India has been cultivating the growing diaspora, which includes a large number of professionals and affluent persons settled in many Western countries. OCI, formalised in 2005, after multiple attempts starting in the 1990s, was a part of this outreach. However, the process of creation of OCI has been informed by suspicion of diaspora and a security centred framework. During parliamentary debates (2005), MPs expressed fear that OCI will open the floodgates for terrorists and criminals of Indian origin — they were referring to terrorist organisations led by individuals who were born in India but now settled abroad.
This heightened security discourse not only foreclosed the possibility of dual citizenship but also led to several restrictions including stipulations about cancelling OCI for showing disaffection towards the Constitution of India and for threatening the sovereignty, integrity, and security of India. OCI individuals are required to get special permission for doing journalism, research, filming a documentary, and missionary work. A new clause about OCI cancellation was added in the discriminatory 2019 Citizenship Amendment Act (CAA) — violation of any law, determined by government notification, could lead to the cancellation of the OCI card.
Suspicion of the diaspora is particularly exemplified in cases involving political expression, human rights work, and the rights of religious minorities. The example of Aatish Taseer is illustrative of the precarious state of many OCI cardholders. Christine Mehta, an Indian American who worked in India for Amnesty International focusing on human rights violations by the Indian military in Kashmir, was abruptly ordered to leave India in 2014 and her OCI status was nullified.
Christo Thomas Phillip, an Indian-American Christian doctor who returned to India to work in a hospital serving a poor community in Bihar, found his OCI card cancelled in 2016 after the government accused him of “evangelical and subversive activities.” Later, the Delhi High Court restored his OCI card.
Such penalising actions have a chilling effect on OCI cardholders, particularly those who do not conform to notions of the ideal diaspora that the government seem to entertain. The continued travel ban on the OCI category is symptomatic of India’s unwillingness to move away from a suspicion and security framework to engage with its diaspora and not learn from the larger global trend of dual citizenship that is premised on greater inclusivity.
Mishra is an Assistant Professor of Political Science at Drew University in New Jersey and the author of Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans
📣 The Indian Express is now on Telegram. Click here to join our channel (@indianexpress) and stay updated with the latest headlines