We're Live Bangla Sunday, April 02, 2023

Foreign citizens of Indian origin cry foul after India tweaks rules on their status in the country

ISSUE-2-2

India has tweaked the rules for those holding Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) cards - an immigration status for foreign citizens of Indian origin - causing much disquiet, particularly among those living and working in the country.

A type of permanent residency for Indian-origin, foreign nationals, OCI, which was introduced in 2005, allowed for visa-free travel and holders enjoyed the same rights as an Indian national except on owning agricultural land, voting and getting a government job.

It was seen as a way to acknowledge the links with hundreds of thousands of Indian nationals who had taken foreign citizenship but retained strong links, particularly through family, to their country of origin. 

But on March 4, a government notification said OCI holders would henceforth need to get special permission from the Indian government to undertake any Tabligh or missionary, mountaineering and journalistic activities.

Special permission would also be required for those taking an internship or employment in any foreign diplomatic missions or foreign government organisations as well as for those visiting protected or restricted areas in India.

The new rules extended to students with OCI cards. They would no longer be able to get seats in educational institutes through the general category of Indian citizens but through seats allotted to non-resident Indians (NRIs), who are Indian nationals living abroad.

The changes caused disquiet among OCI cardholders, particularly those who have returned to India to carve out a new life.

Mr Naren Thappeta, a patent advocate who returned to India in 2002 from the United States and is currently an OCI cardholder, said: "The OCI scheme doesn't give us comfort to plan our lives around India. Basically, the scheme has been very confusing as to our legal standing in India.

"A lot of executives at multinationals and start-ups are worried. With the various restrictions on even resident-OCIs, it's worrisome to build a life here.

"We are hoping the government will learn from the OCI scheme, and realise the need to grant true dual citizenship status to those that seriously engage with India. With globalisation, people like us connect with India and another country. The rules in most developed countries have changed to accommodate that and sadly only Indian laws lag," he added.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has always paid special attention to Indians with foreign citizenship, making it a point to meet and address them on his overseas travels.

There are 28 million people of Indian origin living abroad and this includes six million OCI cardholders of which 63,290 are Singaporeans, according to government records.

Mr Prashant Reddy T, a lawyer and co-author of Create, Copy, Disrupt: India's Intellectual Property Dilemmas said the rules were triggered by a number of court judgments related to OCI cardholders.

One was a Delhi High Court judgment pulling up the Ministry of Home Affairs for cancelling the OCI card of an American-Indian doctor for evangelical activities as he was offering free medical services to the poor in Bihar state.

Another was an order of the High Court of Karnataka stating that students under the OCI category are to be considered as "citizens of India" for admission to professional courses.

"The government, in one of the cases, argued that they (OCI holders) are all foreign nationals. Fundamentally, they have tried to crystallise this through a notification," said Mr Reddy.

"There will be long-term implications and I foresee a lot of litigation. There is little clarity on whether these new rules will now require OCIs to apply for work visas."

The notification states that OCI cardholders will be treated as NRIs if they are doctors, dentists, nurses, pharmacists, advocates, architects and chartered accountants.

Government sources said that the notification was aimed at further clarifying the "responsibility and rights" of OCI cardholders and the rules were part of a 2019 brochure, which has now been legalised through the notification.

"There are certain things they have to comply with," the sources added.

OCI cardholders were also recently impacted by travel restrictions imposed by India as part of a strict lockdown to prevent the spread of Covid-19. OCI cardholders were prevented from travelling to India between March and October last year.

"(Prime Minister) Modi is in favour of OCI. He is proud of overseas citizens of India. Suddenly all this has happened," said Mr Prem Bhandari, chairman of Jaipur Foot USA, who said he was studying the new rules.