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Partisan citizenship

Print edition : Jan 31, 2003

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The BJP-led government seems all set to pave the way for conferring dual citizenship on Persons of Indian Origin in some select countries while denying it to those in other countries.

in New Delhi

IT is indeed a paradox that a government that prides itself on being patriotic and nationalistic should think in terms of relaxing the stringent qualifications imposed by Parliament for the grant of citizenship. The Bharatiya Janata Party-led National Democratic Alliance government at the Centre thinks there is nothing wrong in conferring dual citizenship on the People of Indian Origin (PIO) in some select countries, even while denying it to PIOs living in other countries. Addressing the delegates attending the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas in New Delhi on January 9, Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee said that the government would introduce the legislation necessary to permit dual citizenship during the Budget session of Parliament. He said that the government was already working on the administrative regulations and procedures governing it.

Notwithstanding the contents of the proposed law to amend the Citizenship Act to provide dual citizenship, it is important to look at the motives and merits of the government's decision. The question of citizenship became particularly important while drafting the Constitution because the Constitution-makers sought to confer certain rights and privileges upon those who were entitled to Indian citizenship, while denying them to non-citizens. Consequently, some of the fundamental rights apply to citizens alone; only citizens are eligible for certain offices and have the right to vote in the elections held to various representative bodies and the right to become members of the legislative bodies.

The Constitution described the classes of persons who would be deemed to be the citizens of India at the date of commencement of the Constitution and left the task of regulating the law governing citizenship to Parliament, which enacted the Citizenship Act in 1955, making elaborate provisions for the acquisition and termination of citizenship subsequent to the coming into force of the Constitution. The Act rules out dual citizenship and holds that a person may lose Indian citizenship either by voluntarily abjuring it because he or she holds the citizenship of another country, or by voluntarily acquiring the citizenship of another country.

It might be debatable whether the Constitution-makers approved of dual citizenship because they delegated the responsibility to decide this issue to Parliament. But the fact that Parliament decided to rule it out within five years after the inauguration of the Republic reveals the ethos of those times: close on the heels of the achievement of freedom after a prolonged struggle against foreign rule, our parliamentarians could not have permitted dual citizenship, as citizenship was considered synonymous with national identity, sovereignty and security.

This is not to suggest that the issue of dual citizenship should not have been raised at this stage. Today, there are many countries in the world that endorse dual citizenship in one form or the other; in the Indian subcontinent, Bangladesh permits dual citizenship. The logic behind allowing dual citizenship is that in an era of global mobility, people can belong to more than one country at different levels for all or part of their lives. Indeed, in today's globalised world, one might argue that dual or multiple citizenship is a necessary concept.

However, every country perceives the risks and the benefits involved in permitting dual citizenship differently. The United States warns that the country would not encourage it because of the problems it poses. Although the U.S. does not bar dual citizenship, some observers have expressed concern over the issue of allowing it, especially after the September 11, 2001 attacks. In Australia, Section 17 of the Australian Citizenship Act, 1948, which barred dual citizenship, was repealed in April last year, following a prolonged campaign by interest groups and the expatriate Australian diaspora. Australia, which prides itself on being the most successful example of multiculturalism in the world, believes that dual citizenship is a way of recognising diversity and accepting people of all races, creeds and backgrounds. Therefore, the compulsions behind India's decision need to be understood.

In his inaugural address on January 9, Vajpayee said that the biggest challenge facing every immigrant community was to integrate itself harmoniously into the political, economic and social life of the host society, while preserving and cherishing its own civilisational heritage. Over the years, he said, Indians had achieved this delicate balance virtually everywhere, without any contradiction between their adopted citizenship and their Indian identity. If the Prime Minister's reasoning is any indication, then dual citizenship appears to be a reward for the Indian diaspora for achieving this balance.

Dual citizenship involves the issue of an Indian passport to a person holding another country's passport, provided that person's application to the Indian government satisfies certain qualifications that will be prescribed in the proposed legislation to amend the Citizenship Act. It will be extended initially to citizens of only a few countries on the basis of reciprocity, that is, in the case of countries such as the U.S., the U.K., Canada, Australia, New Zealand, Singapore, and a few European countries that permit dual citizenship.

As the government seeks to amend the Act, it has sought to clear certain misgivings. For example, it has been announced that citizens who possess dual citizenship will not be entitled to vote or contest elections. They may not be allowed to join the Army, or appointed to certain constitutional positions. However, they may be allowed to buy property and make investments.

The government's decision has been based on the recommendations of the high-level committee headed by the former Indian High Commissioner to the U.K. and Member of Parliament Dr. L.M. Singhvi. The committee, which was constituted in 2000, has recommended in its report, which was submitted last year, that dual citizenship should be permitted to foreign citizens of Indian descent settled in certain countries, within the rubric of the Citizenship Act. However, the committee recommended that the option of PIO cards, which was more suitable for persons of Indian descent in many countries, be continued, and suggested that those who hold PIO cards be allowed to avail themselves of the provisions of naturalisation after two years of obtaining the card. The committee further recommended that those who acquired dual citizenship should be allowed to become naturalised citizens after one year. This relaxation should be applicable to senior citizens of Indian origin who may wish to return to India for good in the evening of their lives to settle down, it observed. The committee sought to distinguish PIOs from Non-Resident Indians (NRIs) - the latter remain Indian citizens even while staying abroad.

The genesis of the PIO card scheme lay in the long-standing demand for dual citizenship raised by PIOs. The scheme was launched in March 1999 for PIOs up to the fourth generation, except the citizens of Pakistan, Bangladesh and other countries specified by the government. It introduced a visa-free regime for 20 years at a fee of $1,000 and conferred on the holder economic, educational, financial and cultural benefits on a par with NRIs. In its interim recommendation to the government, the committee suggested a lowering of this fee and several other concessions in order to make the scheme attractive.

However, the committee found that there had been a persistent demand from the Indian community abroad, especially in North American and some other advanced countries, for the grant of dual citizenship. Under the existing legislation, namely, the Citizenship Act of 1955, and a number of judicial decisions - Indian citizenship is automatically forfeited when an Indian citizen acquires the passport of a foreign country. However, PIOs held that they were often forced to acquire foreign passports for functional reasons and said that this did not imply a renunciation of their loyalty to India. The Indian community felt strongly that the grant of dual citizenship would create considerable goodwill among PIOs and facilitate investments by them in areas such as trade, tourism, voluntary work and philanthropic contributions in India. Therefore, the committee concluded that the grant of dual citizenship to certain members of the Indian diaspora with appropriate safeguards would facilitate the contribution of the diaspora to India's social, economic and technological transformation and national development. For instance, persons with dual citizenship will not be subject to double taxation in India, if they are already taxed in their country of residence.

It might be premature to say whether the stated objective of introducing dual citizenship will be achieved. Critics of the move, such as former Foreign Secretary J.N. Dixit, feel that the objectives of dual citizenship could be achieved even without granting it. They argue that the offer of dual citizenship is unlikely to bring in additional investments or contribute to the country's development. The committee has noted that countries such as Italy, Poland, Israel and Lebanon have granted the right of dual nationality to members of their diaspora.

But there are countries that have not chosen to grant dual citizenship but have still achieved their objectives. China, whose success in wooing investments from overseas Chinese has been widely commended, does not grant dual citizenship. The committee concluded that while ethnicity was a factor that contributed to China's success in attracting investments from overseas Chinese, economic imperatives, including the booming Chinese economy and sound government policies including flexible labour laws and efficient administrative procedures, were the major factors responsible for the phenomenon. The committee noted that these incentives applied to all investors and there were no special incentives for overseas Chinese. The committee has strongly recommended to the Government of India that if the country wished to increase Foreign Direct Investment inflows from both its diaspora and other investors, it had to invest heavily in infrastructure, both social and physical, create through administrative reforms an operating environment conducive to conducting business, and implement the so-called second-generation reforms to increase the dynamism of the Indian economy.

The motives behind the Indian government's decision to grant dual citizenship are suspect. The denial of dual citizenship to PIOs in Bangladesh, which follows a reciprocal provision, on the grounds that it could compromise the country's security interests, is discriminatory. In fact, the government's decision to allow dual citizenship to PIOs in certain countries was preceded by a provocative and insensitive declaration by Deputy Prime Minister L.K. Advani that the illegal immigrants from Bangladesh, many of whom are Muslims, would be identified and thrown out of the country.

It is doubtful whether the decision to allow dual citizenship to the Indian diaspora was the result of broader considerations. In any case, the demand for dual citizenship appears to have come from only one section of the diaspora, which thinks that it could satisfy its emotional needs better.

Critics suggest that the BJP-led government acceded to the demand primarily because it wants to pamper its NRI/PIO supporters and fund-raisers, and not because of certain sound principles that have guided similar decision in other countries.

Apart from the offer of dual citizenship, the government is thinking in terms of introducing certain welfare schemes in the form of insurance and a welfare fund for the NRIs and blue collar workers in the Gulf countries, whose human rights need protection, according to the committee. Whatever be the motives, the merits and demerits of dual citizenship will have to be judged after it is put into practice.

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