More equal than others

Published : Jan 19, 2002 00:00 IST

The government's apparent intentions on the issue of dual citizenship make it clear that certain elite Non-Resident Indians are to be treated differently from ordinary Indian citizens, both at home and abroad.

ONE of the more definitive changes in Indian society and polity over the last decade in particular, has been the growing importance of Non-Resident Indians (NRIs). This importance has been far in excess of the actual economic role that they have played in terms of net new investment in the country or any other material contribution, but it reflects quite a significant shift in the nature of the ruling classes in India.

Of course, emigration has been a feature of "Indian" society for centuries if not millennia. In fact, if the quasi-historians currently favoured by the government in power at the centre are to be believed, even the Aryan migration began from this subcontinent and moved westwards into Europe rather than the other way around. So the Indian diaspora is hardly a particularly new feature. The last two centuries in particular have seen waves of migration to different parts of the world. In the 19th century these were dominantly to the Caribbean and to Fiji and Mauritius as indentured labour, and into East Africa. In the second half of the 20th century, there have been movements of people to Europe and North America, as well as to the Gulf and West Asia.

The new importance of NRIs stems not from the fact that more Indians are migrating now than before (which in terms of numbers is actually not the case) but that there has been a change in the class composition of the emigrants. Indians from the and upper and middle classes have increasingly been going abroad to study and work, and then choosing to stay on and even take on citizenship in their new homes. This is almost always in the developed countries of the North Atlantic or perhaps Australia.

So the real reason NRIs are so important now is not only that they are officially viewed as potentially important sources of capital inflow and transmission of skill and contacts developed abroad, but also that they have close links with (which makes them almost indistinguishable from) dominant groups within the domestically resident society.

Nothing could illustrate this more dramatically than the government's reception of the Report of the High Level Committee on the Indian diaspora, which was recently released. This committee, headed by L.M. Singhvi, made a number of proposals to give such NRIs even more consequence than they have at present, through a number of measures. Thus, the committee has proposed that January 9 (the date of Mahatma Gandhi's return from South Africa) be officially celebrated as Pravasi Bharatiya Divas and that at least 10 NRIs be honoured every year, along with other Independence Day honours, through the Pravasi Bharatiya Samman.

While many may question the point of these rather quaint gestures, they are still relatively harmless. There are other proposals such as setting up special "windows" to deal with diasporic Indians, which also do not involve major changes. More significant is the recommendation of the committee that "dual citizenship should be permitted to foreign citizens of Indian descent settled in certain countries, within the rubric of the Citizenship Act."

THIS is in fact a major departure from existing practice, and it also involves changing the Constitution. The Prime Minister, welcoming the proposal, declared that this does not involve any amendment of the Constitution. But Article 9 of the Citizenship Act clearly states that persons voluntarily acquiring citizenship of a foreign state are not to be citizens. "No person shall be a citizen of India by virtue of Article 5 (which defines criteria for citizenship at the commencement of the Constitution) or be deemed to be a citizen of India by virtue of Article 6 (which deals with citizenship through immigration) or Article 8 (which deals with the citizenship rights of persons of Indian origin residing outside India) if he has voluntarily acquired the citizenship of any foreign State," the article states.

The statement is therefore quite clear: dual citizenship is not permitted under the Indian Constitution at present. And the reason for this is also fairly obvious - that dual citizenship can create dual, or divided loyalties which can be problematic. This seems so obvious that until recently it was not even considered a matter for discussion, except among a small group of NRIs themselves.

It is the contradiction inherent in this recommendation that apparently led the Prime Minister to make what must rank as one of the most confused statements ever, even by the standards of this government. According to The Hindu (January 9, 2002), Vajpayee is reported to have said: "We are in favour of dual citizenship but not dual loyalty. The loyalty to India will remain but they will also remain loyal to the country where they have taken citizenship and will fulfil their responsibility. Therefore it is not a question of dual loyalty."

What explains this sudden urge to provide dual citizenship when it has been firmly rejected by the Government of India for more than five decades? What, after all, are the benefits of citizenship? Remember that almost all NRIs who have taken citizenship of another country have done so voluntarily. It is possible to be resident in another country for many years or even decades, and yet retain one's Indian citizenship; indeed, most countries have special resident status arrangements that dramatically reduce the bureaucratic hassles involved in retaining Indian citizenship. So the choice of taking on another country's citizenship is just that - a choice, and therefore a statement on essential loyalty.

Remember also that NRIs who are not citizens are anyway given various rights and benefits, as well as special incentives for investment, as Persons of Indian Origin (PIOs). So the main advantages that they would gain if they could acquire Indian citizenship while retaining citizenship of another country would be in two areas : ownership of various forms of property in the country, and the ability to participate in electoral politics, through voting and standing for elections.

Once this is recognised, the demand of PIOs for dual citizenship, and the government's current urge to provide it, make much more sense, especially when the class bias inherent in the demand is revealed. This comes out quite sharply from the fact that not all PIOs are to be so favoured, only those from certain countries. The list of such countries is completely revealing: The United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, a large part of (western) Europe and Singapore.

Note that most of the emigrants to these countries are now from the rich or professional categories, and are very much part of the power structure in India through extended families. No such privileges are to be granted, for example, to the descendants of indentured labour in the West Indies or Fiji (even though, in sheer political terms, they may end up in greater need of it). Nor is there any apparent intention to provide dual citizenship rights to PIOs in Africa who do not have the same elite contacts back home.

Quite simply, the ruling classes of India have decided that their children and other kin, many of whom have chosen to acquire citizenship in the developed countries of the world, must be allowed to retain all their existing privileges in their adopted countries in addition to acquiring or retaining greater economic and political power back in India. It is one more statement by the Indian ruling elite, that it now sees itself as part of a globalised world that is in effect independent of the rest of the Indian population, except for the right to profit by it and exercise political control over it.

This type of measure should come as no surprise given the character of the ruling party in government, which is so heavily dependent upon a certain type of NRI support both for financial subscription and political sustenance. Nor is it surprising given the general pattern of behaviour of the Indian ruling classes in the recent past. But if Indian democracy is actually as vibrant as it is so often declared to be, and if the interests of the mass of people have any voice at all, then surely such a patently undemocratic, elitist and even potentially dangerous proposal cannot be considered.

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