In a stunning development for Overseas Citizens of India, the Ministry of Home Affairs issued a notification on March 4 dramatically altering the compact between OCIs and the Indian state. This notification, which is issued under Section 7B of the Citizenship Act, 1955, supersedes three earlier notifications issued on April 11, 2005, January 5, 2007, and January 5, 2009, which laid down the rights of the OCIs.
Apart from humiliating and illegally classifying OCIs as “foreign nationals”, the new notification introduces a series of new restrictions that dramatically curtails the rights and liberties of OCIs in India. These restrictions include a requirement for OCIs to secure a special permit to undertake “any research”, to undertake any “missionary” or “Tablighi” or “journalistic activities” or to visit any area in India notified as “protected”, “restricted” or “prohibited”.
In addition, the notification now equates OCIs to “foreign nationals” in respect of “all other economic, financial and educational fields” for the purposes of the Foreign Exchange Management Act, 2003 although past circulars by the Reserve Bank of India under FEMA will hold ground. This reverses the position that has held for the last 16 years wherein OCIs were equated to Non-Resident Indians rather than “foreign nationals” for the purposes of their economic, financial and educational rights.
OCIs can however continue to purchase land (other than agricultural land), pursue the profession of medicine, law, architecture and accountancy and seek parity with Indian citizens with regard to airfares and entry fee to monuments and parks. OCIs can also continue to seek enrolment in Indian educational institutions on par with NRIs but not for seats reserved exclusively for Indian citizens.
Most of these new restrictions have likely been inspired by the defeats suffered by the government in various cases filed by OCIs before the judiciary. Take for example, the new requirement for OCIs to apply for a special permit to undertake any missionary activities. This restriction has been introduced to undercut a judgment by Justice Vibhu Bakru of the Delhi High Court wherein he came down heavily on the Ministry of Home Affairs for cancelling the OCI card of an American-Indian doctor on the grounds that he was engaged in “evangelical and subversive activities” while offering free medical services to the needy and the poor in Bihar.
In that judgment, Justice Bakru made it clear that there was no restriction preventing OCIs from engaging in religious activities.
Similarly, the restrictions on OCIs competing for seats reserved for Indian citizens is meant to undercut a judgment of the Karnataka High Court by Justices BV Nagarathna and NS Sanjay Gowda declaring that OCI students will be treated as Indian citizens for the purposes of admission to professional courses.
Lastly, the Ministry of Home Affair’s assertion that OCIs are foreign nationals and not Indian citizens is most likely inspired by ongoing litigation before the Delhi High Court wherein an OCI has sought a declaration from the court that OCIs enjoy fundamental rights just like Indian citizens.
The requirement for OCIs to take a special permit to engage in journalistic activities has likely been motivated by right-wing ideologues like Subramaniam Swamy who has been targeting journalists like The Wire’s Siddharth Vardarajan because of their foreign citizenship. There are several other next generation OCIs who work as journalists in India and whose future will now be under a cloud if the Ministry of Home Affairs decides to deny them the required permit to continue working as journalists in India.
Long-term visa programme
This notification by the Ministry of Home Affairs is not surprising. For some time now, the Ministry of Home Affairs has dedicated its efforts to reduce the concept of OCIs to a glorified long-term visa programme rather than implement it as a dual citizenship programme, as was the intent of Parliament when then Home Minister LK Advani piloted the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003, through Parliament.
The “Statement of Objects & Reasons” accompanying this Bill, which lays down the intent of the government at the time of introducing a bill in Parliament and which can legitimately be used by the judiciary to discern the legislative intent, stated the following:
“Subsequently, the High Level Committee on Indian Diaspora constituted by the Central Government, inter alia, recommended the amendment of this Act to provide for the grant of dual citizenship to persons of Indian origin belonging to certain specified countries. The Central Government has accordingly decided to make provisions for the grant of dual citizenship.”
Advani in his introductory speech had clarified once again that the entire purpose of the Bill was to introduce dual citizenship for the Indian diaspora. It is therefore disingenuous for the Ministry of Home Affairs to now claim through a recent notification the claim that OCIs are foreign nationals. This argument is all the more absurd when viewed in light of the fact that the phrase OCI literally has the phrase “Indian citizen” in its title.
Lastly, it bears noting that the entire concept of OCIs was brought through the Citizenship Act, 1955, which is a legislation specifically meant to regulate the concept of Indian citizenship. There are separate laws like the Foreigners Act, 1946 and the Foreign Exchange Management Act, 2003, which deal exclusively with foreigners and their rights in India.
The fact that Parliament sought to locate OCIs in the Citizenship Act and not the Foreigners Act or FEMA is sufficient proof that Parliament wanted OCIs to be Indian citizens.
Rather than declaring OCIs as foreign nationals, the Ministry of Home Affairs should recognise OCIs as a new class of Indian citizens who enjoy a different set of rights from Indian citizens holding Indian passports. The rights to which OCIs are not entitled are mentioned in the Citizenship Act. This list includes the right to hold public office or voting – the idea being that OCIs are excluded entirely from the political sphere of citizenship.
Unfortunately, Parliament delegated to the government of India via Section 7 B of the Citizenship Act, the power to decide the remaining rights of OCIs through notifications. While the legality of such delegation is suspect, there is also no doubt that no government can deprive any class of citizens of their fundamental rights.
To argue against such a basic proposition by declaring an entire class of citizens as foreign nationals, as has been done by the Ministry of Home in this present case, is quite simple wrong in law. Parliament can lay down the criteria for citizenship but once it decides to bestow citizenship on any category of persons, not even Parliament can proceed to deprive that class of citizens of their fundamental rights.
The very idea of fundamental rights in India is that every person is born with these rights and the Constitution merely recognises such rights.
If the Home Ministry fails to withdraw its most recent notification, it may just be the end of India’s short-lived experiment with dual-citizenship. It will be difficult if not impossible for the Narendra Modi government to reclaim the trust of OCIs after this latest notification unless it acts swiftly.
Prashant Reddy T is a lawyer and co-author of Create, Copy, Disrupt: India’s Intellectual Property Dilemmas.