Rediff Logo News Banner Ads Find/Feedback/Site Index
January 28, 1998


Ashwin Mahesh

Abolish the NRI

By accident or design, we Indians are everywhere these days. A few generations ago, indentured workers were yanked from their homes by the British and shipped off to foreign lands to work the fields or farms, as far away as Africa and the West Indies. These days, computer-savvy engineering grads have been making it big in high-tech bazaars around the world. And in between, the oil boom in the Persian Gulf, competitive admission to US universities, and sundry other factors have helped realise the Indian diaspora.

Also, thanks to growing economic co-operation, we find ourselves getting closer to several of our neighbors who, while they look like we do, are not one with us. We instantly recognise the terms Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Nepali, to mean 'foreigner', despite the fact that in a lineup of south Asians, many of us often cannot tell one from the other, or the Indian from the rest. Much as we see the resemblance in the faces we encounter in faraway lands, it seems we see it even less in the nearer ones!

Many of these distinctions have not mattered very much in the past. Mostly, India was just an impoverished nation with inadequate opportunities for the aspiring, and mindless casteism that hounded millions. Hardly anyone yearned to be Indian; it made little difference what our look-alikes around the world thought. They knew we were too mired in our problems for our opinions to hold much sway.

But things are slowly changing, and bringing newly relevant questions in their wake. With India becoming an attractive place for investment, and with some hope of a better future, more and more ethnic Indians are looking 'homeward'. Some are demanding representation, and even dual citizenship. Indeed, several official noises have emanated to indicate that this is being considered.

Before we rush to embrace this global community of Indians, let us pause to consider some of these claims. What is the measure of Indianness? What benefits should citizenship confer, and what expectations can the nation hold in return?

What does it mean to be Indian? Under our Constitution and in accordance with the laws of the land, birth, marriage and residence are usually the only criteria by which one can qualify for Indian citizenship. I am a citizen because I was born in India, and I have not relinquished my citizenship. Sonia Gandhi is a citizen because she is (or was once) married to an Indian citizen, and having lived in India for the appropriate length of time, applied for and obtained Indian citizenship.

I realize that citizenship is not the only measure of Indianness, but it is an irrefutable one. It is a good place to begin, because it not only identifies who is Indian, but by its measure, also determines that everyone else is not. When Sonia Gandhi became an Indian citizen, she was required to relinquish her Italian citizenship. That is, one can be Indian or not, but not Indian and something else at the same time. That's the law, anyway.

To extend this discussion to ethnic Indians in foreign countries, we must first delve into differences in the definitions of two terms -- 'NRI' and 'persons of Indian Origin'. Unknown to many of us, there is a big difference between the two, although officialdom has never seen it fit to highlight this.

If you are not a citizen of India, you are strictly not an NRI; the 'I' in NRI refers only to citizens. Having granted this nominal concession to legality, the government built a clause to contravene it, and defined a whole new group, those of Indian origin. The distinction between NRIs, who are Indian citizens, and those of Indian origin, who are not, is blurred by this additional foreign office position -- those of Indian origin are entitled to the same treatment in all matters as NRIs, apart from those that are linked to citizenship. This is an article of faith in every foreign office that you can check with, even though this has no foundation in law!

Most Indian embassies even proclaim this alleged equality quite clearly in all the information they dispel -- your local embassy's web site can confirm this. And the average financial investment firm on the Net has qualms about using the term 'NRIs holding foreign passports'; they are completely oblivious to the fact that such persons by definition do not exist legally. Indeed, if NRIs and those of Indian origin are to be treated at par, why define the second group? And more importantly, why should the government equate citizens like me with non-citizens who merely look like I do?

As if this were not bad enough, here is a rider that is attached to the second definition -- ethnicity is not enough to be a person of Indian origin, one must additionally not be a citizen of Pakistan or Bangladesh. And even more galling is this -- whereas a spouse of a person of Indian origin is also considered a person of Indian origin, such spouse should not be a citizen of Pakistan or Bangladesh.

Cheddi Jagan's white-skinned Jewish-American wife recently elected to public office in Guyana is a person of Indian origin, and is to be treated on par with Indian citizens, but the downtrodden Khan's uncle and aunt who live on the other side of the border are not in the same league. This is the true scandal of our society -- the arbitrary assignment of status to people with no regard for equality and lip-service to fairness.

Muslims who left for Pakistan are not considered of Indian origin even if they were born in Cochin or Bhopal, but those who leave to the UK and the US and take up citizenship in those countries are Indian. Why is the choice made by Muslims during a horrendously sensitive time any more deplorable than one made by a group of comfortably-off middle and upper-class folks, mostly Hindus?

Those of Indian origin are clearly not NRIs. Yet, based on the colour of their skin, or claiming to be Indians in spirit, they now contend that they are entitled to citizenship. This claim, while it may be culturally valid, is not legally so. I have no problem with the fact that some foreigners might consider themselves Indian. But imagining that they are Indian does not make them so. If that were possible, half the world would claim American citizenship and the right to immigrate to the US.

Besides the obvious demerits of granting citizenship to those who are already nationals of another part of the planet, there is another aspect to this debate that needs to be exposed. It is not any business of the government of India where its citizens live, and making distinctions on the basis of such residence contravenes the promise of equality that accompanies citizenship. The designation of NRIs, and its third-rate cousin, the Indian origin clause, are both slaps in the face of propriety and constitutionality.

We ought to do away with this unfounded terminology and stick to facts. Citizens of India are Indians, and should have the same rights wherever they live. Moreover, these rights must derive from citizenship alone, and should not be demeaned by dishing them out to every one who comes asking. Far from making Kalpana Chawla and Meghnad Desai out to be great Indians, the government first ought to find a way to help citizens who live abroad able to vote.

Here in the US, several Indian families have children who are not Indian citizens, and some Indian-born Americans have parents who are Indian citizens. It would be very convenient if they could fluidly move between one claim and the other, and not have to wait to get residence permits and visas and God knows what else. But citizenship is not a matter of convenience. Try telling the US government that your parents needs American citizenship to be closer to you, and see how far you get without a long wait. And if the US stalls, imagine what the others will do.

Citizenship obliges the people who hold it to represent the national interest, against those of others if necessary. Dual citizenship blurs the line between committed citizens and potential deserters. In an ideal world, there would be no conflict, and this blurring would not matter. But until we get there, the distinction is both appropriate and wise.

And then there's the obvious charade of this whole claim. Foreigners of Indian origin, (let us not forget that such individuals are not NRIs) who claim the right to Indian citizenship have no intention of giving up the one they already hold. That would hinder their ability to travel freely around the world, in the high-altitude environs where the Indian passport is worth nothing. How easy it would be if our government would simply grant them Indian citizenship as well!

Our government no doubt recognises the economic influence wielded by those of Indian origin, and equating them with NRIs is just a feel-good carrot. But the proper way to induce economic activity is to introduce economic incentives, not to meddle with constitutional definitions of Indian-ness. Tinkering with social standards in the name of economic objectives is foolhardy.

The Government of India is a government of the Indian people, so defined on the basis of their citizenship. Everyone else, whatever be the colour of her skin or her religion or her ethnicity, is a foreigner. As such, it must be considered that such persons place the national interest of their own countries above that of India.

Citizenship is not merely about rights; in fact, it is more importantly about responsibilities. Citizens can be drafted during war, and must serve. Citizens are required to hold faith with the nation, those who place the interests of other nations above that of their own are considered traitors. Consider this -- how many people who seek dual citizenship will affirm in writing that in the event of conflict, they will stand by Indian interests, over any interests of other nation? Zero.

Allowing the rich and the powerful to define their own identity is not an exercise in democracy. We pretend otherwise at our own peril. Citizens of India deserve better than to be equated with dubious investors and their indifferent brethren who have no particular national interest. Tricolored bedsheets don't pass for the national flag.

Naanum manishan thane?

Ashwin Mahesh

Tell us what you think of this column