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Citizenship with dollars and pounds


IN all the glitz of the "Pravasi Bharatiya Divas", the one memorable phrase spoken was surely the most critical one. "Dollar and pound citizenship," said Fatima Meer, well-known member of the African National Congress of South Africa, commenting on the Government of India's plan to offer dual citizenship to only persons of Indian origin living in a select group of "rich" countries in North America, west Europe and Australasia.

The acerbic Naipauls first raised this case of blatant discrimination, but it was Ms. Meer who said what had to be said. There may be 20 million people of Indian descent living outside India, but only the five million or so living in the United States, Canada, west Europe, Australia, New Zealand and Singapore will be able to claim Indian citizenship as well. You are valued by India only if you earned your incomes in dollars and pounds. If your ancestors went as indentured labour to Fiji, as plantation workers to Malaysia or as small traders to East Africa, India had no use for you. Union Home Minister, Lal Kishen Advani tried to deny there was any discrimination in the selective offer. The countries that were identified, Mr. Advani claimed, were those in the world which allowed their citizens to take up dual citizenship. This was a weak defence. For instance, Trinidad and Tobago permits dual citizenship, but the 500,000 citizens of Indian origin in that country will be excluded from the Government of India's offer. Sri Lanka too offers a certain form of dual citizenship, so does South Africa.

Ever since late 2001 when the L.M. Singhvi committee on the Indian diaspora made precisely the same suggestion of a discriminatory offer of dual citizenship, it was known that the Government would move in this direction of discrimination towards the Indian diaspora. The Singhvi panel's logic itself was peculiar and inconsistent. Trying to counter the security argument against grant of dual citizenship, it said only Indians in the selected countries of North America, Europe, Singapore and Australasia would be offered the privilege. Why? Because these were "highly developed countries" (p. 528 of the Singhvi report) and because the Indians there had largely migrated after Independence. The Singhvi panel had clearly decided beforehand who should be given the honour and who should be denied dual citizenship. The Government has now taken up the same logic. The reasons for the discrimination and privilege are, in the Government's mind, obvious. One is "security" considerations. If you take a wider definition of persons of Indian origins, then Indians who migrated to Pakistan and Bangladesh will also be entitled to Indian citizenship. That is not possible because the Constitution removes Indian citizenship from those who went to Pakistan after 1947, but still the fear is there that universal grant of dual citizenship rights to all members of the diaspora will cause security problems. The second reason for the discriminatory privilege is what in Hollywood gangster films is called "payback time" for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). Everyone knows that the BJP enjoys strong support among the Indians who now live in North America and to a certain extent those in west Europe as well. It is the same groups which have been in the forefront of the demand for dual citizenship. So armed with the peculiar intellectual justification provided by the Singhvi panel, the Government has announced plans for a selective offer of dual citizenship, one which any self-respecting expatriate Indian must surely spurn because it is discriminatory.

Is the solution then to offer all the 20 million people of Indian origin living abroad the same rights of dual citizenship? The fundamental issue is one of the idea of dual citizenship itself. The Indians in North America do clamour for these rights. One very narrow reason is that it will greatly ease travel to India. Another, only slightly broader reason, is that it will facilitate purchase of property in India. The latter is already possible to a substantial degree and the former can easily be addressed by basic changes in administrative procedure and by making the PIO card more usable. The third reason for the demand for dual citizenship is an "emotional" one of retaining (or rather reviving) the formal bonds with India. But citizenship is fundamental to membership of a nation-state and it comes with basic rights and responsibilities. It is not something that can be negotiated at one's convenience. If, for whatever perfectly legitimate reasons, we give up citizenship of India then we surely cannot expect to "buy" it back at our convenience at some point in future.

Finally, isn't there some irony that the Government (again on the Singhvi panel's suggestion) has chosen to celebrate Pravasi Bharatiya Divas on January 9, the day Mohandas Gandhi returned to India from South Africa?

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