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Sunanda K Datta-Ray: The nuisance of Indian foreignness

The 'NRI status' is a confidence trick that Indian diplomats abroad deliberately keep going

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Not everyone was overjoyed by last week’s junketing to celebrate 20 glorious years of the Association of South-east Asian Nations (). While Asean leaders were slapping each other on the back in Delhi, an Asean citizen was railing against the incompetence of India’s High Commission in and obstructive immigration officials in Kolkata. The combined effect was to proclaim what I have long suspected: the much-trumpeted Overseas Citizen of India () status is a bit of a confidence trick that abroad deliberately keep going.

But to begin at the beginning. An ethnic Indian second-generation Singaporean whose husband had been Singapore’s ambassador in several countries and is still a high official, sent her OCI booklet and Singapore passport to the for a visa to visit India. Back they came with His Excellency’s assurance that OCIs didn’t need a visa. Her booklet was a lifetime visa. Nothing of the kind, retorted the immigration official at Kolkata airport, and not too pleasantly either. He was unconcerned with whether Singapore’s Indian High Commission was ignorant, lazy or mischievous. He only knew that OCIs need visas.

Eventually, he grudgingly gave my friend a 72-hour entry permit but took away her passport. She had to collect it next day from the Foreigners Registration Office (). That was another ordeal entailing being shunted from room to room for three or four hours and scolded by irate officials. But she did get back her passport with an extra day’s grace in India. By then, it was time to fly back to Singapore.

The reception at the airport and FRO was inexcusable but I can hazard two guesses in explanation. First, our junior officials (perhaps seniors too) find the exercise of power some compensation for the frustrations of daily living. To wield power over a foreigner who is much richer and ranks much higher socially is bliss indeed! The second reason is more rational. Low-ranking immigration clerks here may be fed up with the antics of lordly high commissioners, ambassadors and consuls-generals abroad who keep sending visitors like my Singaporean friend with misleading advice.

If High Commission officials in Singapore had bothered to read the OCI booklet my friend submitted, they would have known that holders enjoy only three benefits. First, they are entitled to the “grant of multiple-entry multi-purpose lifelong visa to visit India” that clearly proclaims the booklet itself isn’t a visa. It only establishes the right to a visa, which a diligent High Commission would have issued. Second, “exemption from registration with /FRO for any length of stay in India” must be a great relief but, again, exemption wouldn’t have been stated if OCI was synonymous with citizenship. Third, “parity with Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) in economic, financial and educational fields except in matters relating to acquisition of agricultural/plantation properties” doesn’t establish parity with citizens. I don’t know NRI entitlements.

However handsome these benefits may be (I am saying nothing about merit or justification), they don’t amount to dual citizenship. A dual citizen has passports from two countries with no infringement of his citizenship rights in either. Andreas Papandreou was a US citizen before becoming the prime minister of Greece. I know American diplomats who also carry Irish passports. India doesn’t allow such liberties. Making the OCI card look like a passport is part of the deception.

An official announcement implied not long ago that Indians abroad (NRIs/Persons of Indian Origin/OCIs, call them what you will) could vote in our elections. Nothing of the sort. All it meant was that an Indian citizen who happens to be abroad during an election can cast his vote. A minor bureaucratic facility – available for decades for French Pondicherrians – was camouflaged as a major concession.

There’s a reason for these subterfuges. Traditionally, India wanted no truck with Indians who had left these shores. Unlike the overseas Chinese, Indian expatriates did not distinguish themselves for patriotism either. The $2 billion they rushed out of India during the Gulf War was one reason why India faced bankruptcy during ’s prime ministership. It was only after ’s reforms promised attractive dividends that NRI capital came trickling back again. Delhi has been on a roll since then wooing the diaspora with Pravasi Bharatiya Sanman awards, the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas and apparent concessions to the demand for dual citizenship without giving much away. My Singaporean friend’s recent experience suggests India’s High Commission in Singapore led her up the garden path (leaving the immigration people in Kolkata to carry the can) as part of this sleight of hand.


sunandadr@yahoo.co.in  

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