Policy Issues

Double standards

Print edition : January 23, 2015

Australian-Indians during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit, at the Allphones Arena Olympic Park in Sydney, on November 17, 2014. Photo: Saeed Khan/AFP

Hindu migrants from Pakistan at the temporary shelter near Jaipur, on September 28, 2012. Photo: Rohit Jain Paras

There is no logic to the way in which the Indian government grants Persons of Indian Origin (PIO) cards to citizens of certain countries and not to others.

PRIME MINISTER Narendra Modi’s announcement from the parapet of Madison Square Garden in New York City apropos the grant of lifetime visas to Persons of Indian Origin (PIO) card holders was greeted with jubilation by Indian Americans. But it also brought to the fore prejudices embedded in the treatment of people settled in India’s immediate neighbourhood. While welcoming PIOs from First World nations such as the United States, the United Kingdom and Australia, people from Bhutan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, Iran (excluding Iranian nationals of Indian origin) and China have been at the receiving end of systematic discrimination for years.

For passport holders of other countries who wished to enjoy benefits akin to that of an Indian citizen or an NRI (non-resident Indian), a scheme was launched in 1999, called Person of Indian Origin (PIO) Card Scheme, and it was further revised in 2002. Those who could benefit from it were: persons who, at any point in time, had held an Indian passport; persons whose parents, grandparents or great-grandparents were born in and were permanent residents of India; or persons who were foreign spouses of an Indian citizen or a PIO holder. Any foreign national who was eligible to become a citizen of India on or after January 26, 1950, (commencement of the Indian Constitution) is eligible to benefit from an Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) Scheme.

The deadline for the merger of the PIO and OCI cards, as announced by Narendra Modi, has been set for January 2015. If it goes through, it will drastically ease visa norms for PIOs and enable frequent and hassle-free travel for them. In making this announcement, Modi carried forward the hackneyed agenda of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) to reach out to the Indian Diaspora. This endorsement of a certain class of people (predominantly the business community) has opened a Pandora’s box and brought into sharp focus a policy of the Indian government that seeks to exclude a lot of people from enjoying citizenship rights.

Naina Khurshid, born and brought up in New York, is the daughter of parents who migrated to the United States from Karachi in Pakistan. Her family had gone to Karachi from Patna after Partition. Of all the countries she has lived in, she feels most at home in India but this is one country where she will never become eligible for citizenship. “Having lived in many countries in the four decades of my youth, I feel completely at ease in Delhi and would love nothing more than to spend more time here. But I have come to understand and accept that as a person whose folks are perceived to be from Pakistan, I will never be able to make India a home,” she says.

Every time she has to visit, the establishment gives her a hard time through bureaucratic rigmarole, and long-term work visas are hard to come by. All this on the grounds that her grandparents chose to become citizens of Pakistan post-Partition many decades before she was born. This might be her last visit in a long time to come, she adds.

People who hold citizenships of Pakistan or Bangladesh have longer waiting periods, sometimes many years, compared with citizens of other countries, and have to complete piles of paperwork before they are able to visit family or friends in India.

A circular from the Ministry of Home Affairs signed by Undersecretary to the Government of India, M.K. Khanna, with a copy to Secretaries of Ministries of Tourism, Human Resource Development, and Information & Broadcasting, officials of the Ministry of External Affairs and the Foreigner Regional Registration Offices of Delhi, Mumbai, Kolkata and Amritsar and the Chief Immigration Officer, Chennai, specifies who is ineligible for availing himself/herself of the PIO status:

“Besides the nationals of Pakistan and Bangladesh, the nationals of Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal, Iran, China and any other country that may be specified by the Central Government shall also not be eligible for issue of PIO card. Further if the applicant himself or either of his parents, grandparents or great grandparents held the nationality of these specified countries at any time, he will not be granted PIO card.” It goes on to add that, “stateless persons holding identity/ travel documents shall not be eligible for grant of PIO card.”

These policies bust the myth that India is a melting pot of different cultures that assimilates refugees from all over, especially neighbouring countries, with ease. It may still be easy for people to get inside the country illegally due to its lax control but the officialdom makes it hard for people who want to do things legally. In short, it excludes genuine requests for citizenship by people who have been residing and working in the country for years, condemning them to depend on applying for short-term visas with no guarantee of extensions. While the notification states that all spouses of Indian citizens are eligible to apply for a PIO card, in practice, spouses from South Asian backgrounds are excluded without being given any reasons. It especially hurts spouses of Indian citizens from South Asian countries who have been residing here for decades.

The government’s reasons for implementing such a policy could not be verified as attempts to contact the Joint Secretary (Foreigners) and the Minister of State for Home Affairs were unsuccessful. Email queries went unanswered.

Discrimination in practice

“Ruling out citizens of Pakistan and Bangladesh on grounds of ancestry could be because their ancestors were all citizens of British India. Likewise, there are about a million Sri Lankan Tamils of recent Indian origin. (Whether they would be able to produce the required documentation is of course very doubtful.) But, this does not apply to spouses of Indian citizens, and I think the PIO Notification has not excluded them precisely because that would constitute racial discrimination. Yet, in practice, that is what is being done,” says Sanchari Nag who lives in a South Asian country and has been married to an Indian citizen for close to four decades. She has been continuing in domicile by applying for short-term visas almost annually.

Contrast this with the situation of Alec Martin, a British national, with no Indian ancestry but married to an Indian citizen, who got his PIO within three weeks of applying for it on the strength of his marriage to an Indian citizen and one wonders if there is an exclusion policy practised by the state but not spelt out as it would directly incriminate it for practising racism. If this is indeed the case, the Ministry of Home Affairs’ practice is in blatant violation of the United Nations convention against all forms of racial discrimination, including discrimination on the basis of nationality. It would also seem to be a violation of the terms of the PIO Notification, besides being a clear case of discrimination on the basis of nationality, which is counted as racial discrimination in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination.

Officials in bureaucratic and foreign affairs circles will tell you that most countries have certain “necessary” protocols that need to be followed where citizenship is concerned and that India is no different. But beyond the questions of “necessary” safeguards for a nation state, there are questions of whether, within the privileged concept of citizenship, the establishment exhibits a trace of prejudice in the way it denies citizenship to people from specific nationalities in a systematic manner and whether some rethinking is not required about the way in which this has become the norm.

A long-standing demand of the Hindu minority community in Pakistan has been for citizenship. Treated as a minority community in Pakistan and as refugees in India, they are a people without a nation. Mostly poor and homeless, hundreds of them have been arriving on trains from Pakistan and camping in the towns of Rajasthan for decades now. In an election speech given in the area, the BJP, specifically Narendra Modi, promised to help their cause. But after the Lok Sabha victory, the party has forgotten them and is instead busy wooing the richer diaspora elsewhere. Hindu Singh Sodha, president of the Seemant Lok Sangathan, which has been actively campaigning for their rights, gave a call for a dharna at Jantar Mantar, New Delhi, earlier this year, along with 350 Hindu migrants. They are asking for the inclusion of persecuted Hindu and Sikh minorities of Pakistan and Bangladesh in the PIO scheme. They say that if a person or either of his parents were earlier citizens of independent India and have been residing in India for one year immediately before making an application for registration, then the person should be considered for citizenship. Under this provision, the majority of Hindu migrants from Pakistan staying in India on long-term visas will be eligible to apply for citizenship.

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