Being An Overseas Indian Has Never Been Better

Suvrajyoti Gupta

Jun 11, 2015, 12:30 PM | Updated Feb 11, 2016, 10:10 AM IST

The increase in benefits for the overseas Indians has not only encouraged them to retain their Indian citizenship, but also created a major difference in the way they are perceived in the nations where they live and work.

Recently, Prime Minister Narendra Modi stirred a storm in a teacup with his statement, “Earlier, you felt ashamed of being born Indian, now you feel proud to represent the country.” Notwithstanding the obvious political jibe, there is substantive truth in his statement. The question is not so much about the subjective sense of pride, since Indians have never been defensive about their heritage. On the contrary, it is about the benefits of being an Indian abroad, which have increased over the period of time.

There are two categories of overseas Indians: firstly, that of Indian citizens who reside and work outside the country for a greater part of the year (NRIs).  The second category comprises persons of Indian origin who have access to either Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) or Person of Indian Origin (PIO) cards. The last two have been merged since January 9, 2015. Seen in a broad sense, it can be said that they have most economic rights of Indian citizenship apart from public rights, such as the right to vote and hold public office.

Every political community differentiates between the rights accorded to citizens and non-citizen residents. Thus, while any person present in India has the right to life (Article 21), many welfare benefits like the right to food, livelihood and old age pension, or health-related benefits as well as political rights like freedom of speech and expression (Article 19, (1) (a)) are exclusively meant for Indian citizens.

The direct enjoyment of many of these rights shall be limited to people who are resident in India. However, the entitlement itself has economic value and can serve as an incentive for people to maintain their Indian citizenship or the OCI card. In other words, though an NRI or an OCI cannot access the Public Distribution System (PDS), he or she can still own and acquire agricultural property, real estate or get valuable benefits under the law of foreign exchange or get his child admitted to Indian educational institutions, which a long-time resident foreign citizen cannot do.

They also get certain discernible benefits in business and other professions. There are sectoral caps on FDI that citizens can access. Thus an Indian citizen, who has stayed in Ireland or some other country for 25 years, is still permitted to hold 51% share in an industry where foreign holding cannot exceed 49%. But a foreign national, who has been the permanent resident in India, cannot avail the benefit.

The Advocates Act 1961 requires Indian citizenship as a perquisite for enrollment as an advocate, thus excluding even OCIs. The practice of medicine is, similarly, confined to citizens. This includes NRIs but excludes OCIs under the Medical Council Act 1956. However, the National Commission for Human Resources for Health  (NCHRH) Bill,  2011 seeks to extend the right to practise medicine to OCIs, subject to requisite professional exams and to foreign nationals on a discretionary basis. Similar long tales can be told about every profession. The law in this area is ambiguous, and sometimes, outright arbitrary. Suffice to say, the very fact that Indian immigration and labour policies are still restrictive can create a situation of privilege for the NRI or even OCI card holders.

The economic value of these rights is directly related to the value of the Indian economy. So, if India has grown at an average of six percent for the past ten years, Indian citizenship today is definitely more valuable than it used to be a decade earlier.

One’s passport is a determinant of one’s mobility. It is well understood that some passports are better than the others for visa free travel around the world. (An OCI card is not “passport.” Hence, I am confining myself to NRIs).

According to the Passport Index in 2015, 59 countries allow visa free access to Indian passport holders. Compare this to the 147 countries, which allow similar access to UK and US citizens, 74 countries for China and 65 for Maldives. If superficially judged, this seems really disheartening.

However, the situation may actually be better than it looks. For one, visa free access is largely reciprocal, which means that countries that get visa free access often allow the same. This year, India has taken a major step by introducing visa free access for 50 countries, a measure that will eventually have a significantly positive impact on this index. So, let us say that the Indian passport is slowly getting better for travel purposes.

The Passport Index measures tourist and short-term visas. It cannot measure, for example, the effect of a given passport on a person’s chance to get a specialised work visa (like H-1B in the US) or a student visa, because such visas are usually issued on grounds that are different from an ordinary tourist visa. In 1965, the US dismantled the immigration quota. Since then, the issues of these visas are meant to be guided by demand and supply, and the country of origin is theoretically irrelevant. In an ideal world, therefore, specialised visa holders (say H-1B) will be evenly distributed across the world.

But, the reality is different. In 2014, almost 67 percent of H-1B visas were issued to Indians. Similarly, almost seven percent of  qualified consultants in the British National Health Service (NHS) are Indian  (2014 figures). A high percentage of foreign-born nurses in the Gulf, UK and Australia are from India. Unless one is willing to believe that most brainy and hardworking people in the world are born in India, one has to conclude that Indian citizenship and success in procuring high-end work visas are, somehow, correlated.

The relationship is complex, but the most appropriate explanation is that the Indians derive favour from legacy and networking factors. NHS hires Indians because it has traditionally done so. IITians get H-1B visas because the earlier generations of IIT graduates have proved themselves in the US and, therefore, have the requisite networks to bring in more alumni. Similarly, the prestige and market goodwill of Indian professionals facilitate the process of bringing in more Indians. Thus, if you are a young professional looking for global opportunities, being an Indian can do no harm.

The main function of the State is to provide security. Security encompasses both physical security as well as the diplomatic and moral support of the State. Traditionally, India has not extended its protection to ethnically Indian populations settled abroad. Three past experiences shows our abilities and attitudes in rather poor light.

Subsequent to the 1962 coup, Burma nationalised all Indian businesses without any compensation, resulting in the immigration of 300,000 Indians. Pandit Nehru could not or did not do anything. He mostly treated it as an internal affair of Burma.

In 1972, Idi Amin expelled almost 90, 000 Asians from Uganda. They were British overseas citizens, and the only concern the Government of India showed was about the prospect of them returning to India. No action was taken apart from severing diplomatic ties. Only about 5000 of them relocated to India.

During the 1987 coup in Fiji against the Indian-dominated Government, Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi did take the matter to the UN and got Fiji expelled from the Commonwealth. However, in the end, India lacked any direct influence on the outcome.

However, one can argue that, during this period, India did not have the framework to engage with the diaspora. That framework was developed under NDA–1 with the introduction of the OCI (1999) and PIO (2002) cards and the “Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas”. True, the State has always tried to frame its interest in terms of economics or culture. It has not really made any explicit guarantee of security; however, such extensive engagement creates a legitimate expectation of security.

Two actions of the present government may have wider repercussions on the India-diaspora relationship. During his campaign trail in 2014, the Prime Minister had made a statement that any prosecuted Indian has the “right to return to India.” The second is the promise of citizenship to Hindu refugees from Bangladesh. This creates a precedent that can and will be used by disparate groups in the future in order to claim access to, and seek protection of, India. This does not necessarily mean the Hindus.

Such right to return/access to India, similar to the “Aliyah of Israel,” strengthens the position of the various ethnically Indian communities in Asia and Africa. It allows them protection from pressures of forcible assimilation and connects them with the larger Indian community worldwide, thereby enhancing the economic prospects of small isolated communities. If necessary, in cases like the Fijian coup, it gives them power that accrues from their connect with a strong State.

One can see this as an Indian version of the “responsibility to protect”.The real question is, what is the security guaranteed by India worth? There are various indicators for measuring national power. The National Power Index, whose scores are calculated by the International Futures Institute, is an index that combines weighted factors of GDP, defence spending, population, and technology. It consistently places India as the third most powerful nation on earth between 2010-2050. The Composite Index of National Capability (CINC) is a statistical measure of national power that uses an average of percentages of world totals by using the six different components of demographic, economic, and military strength. The index places India (2007 figures) at number 4.

The Chinese have their own index called Comprehensive National Power (CNP) that can be calculated numerically by combining various quantitative indices of both hard power like military factors and soft power like economic and cultural factors to create a single number held to measure the power of a nation-state. India stands somewhere 4th in that Index. Thus, to put it simply, India is considered to be a strong country that is getting more powerful.

From a point of view of the NRI or the OCI card holder, especially if he or she does not have the citizenship of other Great Powers like the US or the UK, the Indian protection is invaluable. Such protection would mean the difference between life and death in situations of civil strife (Yemen) or natural disaster (Nepal).  Even during times without any natural or manmade turbulence, it enhances their position in their adopted countries.

The State support can prove invaluable for another set of actors, namely transnational corporations. India has supported diasporic corporate entities. A typical example is that of Mittal Steel’s acquisition of Arcelor, a French-Belgian company, in 2006, in which the Indian PM, Dr. Manmohan Singh actually lobbied for Mittal Steel. Strangely enough, the entity was incorporated in Rotterdam, managed from London by Lakshmi Mittal (UK citizen), son Aditya (Indian citizen) and family (of different nationalities) and, therefore, was not an Indian company in the legal sense.

There have been news stories in the press about Indian support for foreign ventures of companies like GMR and Adani (Indian companies owned by Indian citizens). This is not the traditional arm’s length and legalistic relationship between an enterprise and the State. We must not, however, dismiss this as crony capitalism. The State increasingly sees these entities as producers of value in India through jobs, technology, shareholder value and necessary for the power and prestige of the country. While we may still argue over the moral limits of such support, we cannot deny that such support exists and adds another layer to the relationship between India and the diaspora.

Last but not least, the overseas Indian shares the image of the country. Sometimes, the projection of this national image is negative, and a stereotype thus created can harm the individual in numerous ways. For instance, one of the immediate aftermaths of the Nirbhaya incident was that an Indian male student was denied entry into a German PhD course because the instructor feared for the safety of the female students. Such is the power of negative perception.

On other occasions, the image is positive and actually creates value for the overseas Indian, be it in trade, travel, creation of personal friendships or professional pursuits. A Pew Attitudes Survey in 2008 surveyed the attitudes that Asian nations have towards each other. It shows that a majority of large Asian nations (Pakistan, Indonesia, Malaysia, Bangladesh, Thailand, Vietnam, Japan and China) have an extremely positive attitude towards India.

A BBC survey conducted in 33 countries across the globe in 2006 showed that many more countries (22) give it a net positive rating than a negative rating (6). India is thus seen as a rising power, an old civilization, and, notwithstanding its many negatives, committed to human development and welfare. Such a view of India can only benefit the overseas Indian.

To sum it all up, being an overseas Indian has its benefits and that is increasing with the passage of time. Now, an Indian abroad is a lot more powerful, respected and better-connected. He or she has more reasons to rejoice than ever before.

Suvrajyoti Gupta is an Assistant Professor of Law at the OP Jindal Global University.

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