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Perspective: Why I Haven’t Applied for an OCI Card

By Murali Kamma Email By Murali Kamma
April 2024
Perspective: Why I Haven’t Applied for an OCI Card

The Overseas Citizenship of India card, available to those who gave up their Indian citizenship, has limitations. Is dual citizenship in the cards for the diaspora?

The friendly employee at our local Indian consular center said that I should have applied for an OCI (Overseas Citizenship of India) card—which, as she noted, was more beneficial and economical than the multiple-entry visa I had come for that morning.

Agreeing, I added with a sheepish smile that, having procrastinated, there wasn’t enough time to get an OCI card before my trip to India. This was only partly true. The real reason, which I kept to myself, was my growing doubts over a “citizenship” that withheld the privilege of voting in elections. It made the word a misnomer. Especially these days, when the right to dissent is under threat, it’s important to have the voice that a ballot box provides in a democracy. Having left India years ago, I felt that a recommitment to the country—emotional, social, financial—would be more substantive if the citizenship being offered was first rather than second class.

A baffled friend, pointing out that the OCI card is meant to help me, wonders why I’m fussing over semantics. Because, I tell him, mislabeling can subtly make people believe something that’s not true. False advertising, some would say. Better to call it an ORI (Overseas Resident of India) card, not unlike the Permanent Resident card (aka green card) issued in the U.S.

Let’s not forget that India also benefits from the OCI scheme. It’s no secret that the Modi government assiduously courts the Indian diaspora, which now exceeds 29 million NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) and PIOs (People of Indian Origin), according to the Ministry of External Affairs, with 2.5 million Indians migrating every year. Not only is it the world’s biggest diaspora, it’s also the top global remitter, a World Bank report reveals, accounting for an inflow of $125 billion into India last year. The U.S. is India’s top remitter—and in 2023, three nations (including the U.S.) accounted for 36% of India’s remittance.

Is it any wonder, then, that India is eager to cultivate close ties with its sprawling, influential diaspora. But that relationship can become strained, as recent events have shown. The watchdog publication Article 14 discovered, through a Right to Information Act filing, that over 100 OCI cards had been cancelled in the last nine years. As it stated, “Indian embassies and consulates are increasingly tasked with monitoring and stopping those who criticize or even tweet against Modi, government policies and Hindutva.”

Particularly egregious were those instances when OCIs got into trouble because of their social media posts, or because their queries and explanations were met with silence. How can you defend yourself if the government ignores you? Many people, fearing reprisals, didn’t speak to Article 14 about their OCI woes.

“Interviews with those who did revealed a pattern of punitive action for criticising Modi, his government or its policies, with little scope for appeal, save a stray court decision, if they chose to pursue that expensive, arduous route,” Vijayta Lalwani points out.

“Be careful about what you write if you want to visit India again,” one of my relatives warned. And she is an Indian citizen. If a government is so thin-skinned and insecure that it can’t take dissent for what it is—instead of labelling it “anti-national or “unpatriotic”—then perhaps it’s not worth going through the hassle of getting an OCI card. My doubts actually began three years ago when, in another publication, I read about “a series of restrictions that dramatically constrains the rights and liberties of OCIs in India.” Considered “foreign nationals” for all practical purposes, OCIs would now be required to get permission for, among other things, the vaguely worded “journalistic activities.” Well, I thought, there was no need to rush into what could turn out to be an ambiguous relationship.

Will dual citizenship offer more protection to activists and those who’re not shy about expressing their criticism? Probably. Although we live in the age of weaponization I do believe, maybe naively, that stripping a person of their citizenship would be harder than cancelling an OCI card.

More than 4.5 million people with connections to India have OCI cards. So there’s enormous potential, and I see no reason why India can’t offer dual citizenship when even neighboring countries like Bangladesh and Pakistan do it. By 2020, according to IOM’s Global Migration Data Portal, 76% of the 200 nations surveyed were offering dual citizenship. It’s true that a constitutional amendment would be needed before extending dual citizenship to overseas Indians. That shouldn’t be an obstacle, though, because India, almost two decades ago, had no problem amending the Citizenship Act of 1955 in order to introduce the OCI scheme.

A columnist I sometimes read claims that as India continues to boom—and the West, supposedly, goes into relative decline—overseas Indians, drawn by the opportunities in their native land, will return in droves and help to make it better. I’m not so sure. The India Rising story is not new, and it’s indeed hard to miss the impressive economic growth and infrastructure improvements of recent years.

On our visit to India late last year, we found a vibrant nation, with a youthful energy and optimism that can be infectious. We’re so glad that our son got to experience it.

But what’s also striking is the number of migrants who’re surrendering their Indian passports. In 2023, according to the Ministry of External Affairs, 216,219 Indians renounced their Indian citizenship. In 2022, the number was even higher, with 225,620 Indians giving up their citizenship. These are record-breaking figures. And between 2011 and 2022, reportedly, an average of 138,620 Indians gave up their citizenship each year.

Like it or not, Indian citizens will continue to head for the exit. A good way to retain their loyalty to India, I’d argue, is by offering dual citizenship and the precious civil liberties that go with it. Many other nations are doing it.

While the “security” and “economic” concerns cited by External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar seem overblown, he does say the dual citizenship debate is “still alive.” That’s encouraging, but I’m not holding my breath.

Murali Kamma is the managing editor of Khabar magazine. A slightly different version of this column appeared in The Quint, a news and opinion media outlet based in India.

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