They say “discriminatory” visa policies effectively prevent Indian citizens who are married to Chinese spouses from raising their families in India.

As Prime Minister Manmohan Singh begins his visit to China on Tuesday, more than 100 families are calling on the Indian government to remove what they say are “discriminatory” visa policies that effectively prevent Indian citizens who are married to Chinese spouses from raising their families in India.

Around 150 families — most of whom are residing in China or other countries because of difficulties faced in relocating to India — are considering putting forward a petition to the Indian government to overhaul visa restrictions, according to several families who spoke to The Hindu.

Their main objection is to a long-standing rule that bars Chinese citizens — or anyone whose parents, grandparents or even great-grandparents were Chinese nationals — from acquiring PIO (Persons of Indian Origin) status, which is granted to most other foreign nationals who marry Indian citizens.

The families also pointed to “exasperating” bureaucratic hurdles involving inordinate delays in applying for entry visas; inconsistent application of rules across different Indian Consulates and Embassies, both in China and other countries; and difficulties in renewing visas at Foreigner Regional Registration Offices (FRRO) in India.

Visa issues have received prominent attention ahead of Dr. Singh’s visit to Beijing, where he will hold talks with the Chinese leadership on Wednesday. Earlier, both countries were expected to sign an agreement on liberalising the visa regime for business and tourist visas. Even that agreement, according to recent reports, has been put on hold by the Union Cabinet at the last minute, and it now faces an uncertain fate.

Families say unlike business visas, there is no ostensible “security threat” angle for families. “If the government considers every Chinese spouse as a security threat,” as one Indian resident in China put it, “this is simply discriminatory.” The names of those interviewed for this article are being withheld, as the persons involved were concerned that their visa applications might be affected.

‘X’ entry visa

According to current rules, Chinese spouses have to apply for what is known as an “X entry” visa, which has to be renewed in India every year, and has five-year validity. It can take up to four or five months for the visa to be issued, and delays on account of Home Ministry clearances are routine.

The visa has to subsequently be renewed at FRROs annually. During the five-year period, the Chinese spouses are barred from working in India — a restriction that, families say, poses financial burdens. Only when spouses can apply for Indian citizenship — usually after at least seven years of being resident in India — can they begin working.

“Cumbersome process”

Families also say the extension process is “cumbersome” and more often than not leads to a “visa vacuum” situation where extensions are not granted even beyond the original expiry date.

This led to one family being detained for several hours when flying out of India, because immigration authorities accused it of being in the country illegally. “There is no centralised system or database, and there is no communication between immigration authorities and the FRRO, so many families are put in this situation,” said one Indian national residing in China who is married to a Chinese citizen. The family subsequently decided to put on hold its plans of moving to India, and is now residing in China.

“What we are asking,” added another family, “is that the government considers PIO status just for spouses. For spouses alone, why can’t PIO status be given? You can do all the checks that are necessary, or put in place a graded system. But such a blanket ban is discrimination.” The bar on PIO status also extends to citizens of Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Bhutan, Nepal and Iran.

One Indian and Chinese couple who were considering moving back to India are now rethinking their plans because of the visa hassles involved. This problem, they say, is expected to only get magnified in coming years as increasing numbers of Indians and Chinese travel across the border, particularly on account of fast-growing trade. China has, in recent years, become India’s largest trading partner.

“The way we look at it,” said the Indian national, “there is nothing in the Indian Constitution which says you cannot marry, or raise a family with a citizen from another country. The irony is that it is so much easier in a place like Hong Kong for us to raise a family. India, as a democracy, would want to send a message that it is an open country that welcomes, and not deters, qualified immigrants.”

“But this current policy,” he added, “is essentially infringing on the right of citizenship to family life. If one spouse is barred from working, or cannot have parents visit, or has to live in perennial uncertainty by renewing visa every year, what sort of family life can you have?”