Patriot Games

By Salil Tripathi

Dual citizenship is the clarion call of the ambivalent.

At long last, Indian Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee appears to have decided to accept one of the longest-running, unacknowledged demands of overseas Indians — the right to dual citizenship. If the pronouncement becomes the law, it would mean citizens of Indian origin in the United States, United Kingdom, Singapore, Australia, Canada, and a few other select countries will now be able to carry two passports, their acquired one, and an Indian passport.
This policy is going to be a bureaucratic nightmare. Would an Indian who had a Kenyan passport, then acquired British citizenship, qualify? What about someone whose father is Pakistani and mother an Indian, and now has Canadian citizenship? What about someone else, whose grandmother was Indian, but the other three grandparents were not Indians? What if the case was reversed, with the grandfather being an Indian, the rest not? What of children of divorced, or separated parents with different nationalities, only one of which is Indian?
What will determine the—Indianness of the Indian abroad? The color of the skin? The ability to recite the Indian national anthem? Name the Indian cabinet? Do a geography quiz or a history test? Nobody knows, and the current policy of determining Non-Resident Indians is itself so flawed it cannot help. The NRI policy is sexist, in that the non-Indian spouse of an Indian man is deemed NRI, but the non-Indian spouse of an Indian woman is not. And it is a security nightmare for those hawkish Indians who want to plant a barbed wire between India and Pakistan. For it defines as an NRI anybody who can trace grandparents to pre-Partition India, which would include almost everybody of India, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi origin currently alive.
Mr. Vajpayee’s government hasn’t spelt out the details yet, so it doesn’t yet know what it is going to be in for. Good luck to the officials, who now have the unenviable task of defining nationality in presumably ethnic terms in a multi-ethnic country which has no clear definition on what makes an Indian.
What will complicate the task is that you can become an Indian citizen — Sonia Gandhi is the most obvious example, but I know of other former British, Japanese and Burmese nationals who have become Indian citizens. That openness is a sign of India’s greatness, not weakness.
You don’t have to be born an Indian to be an Indian; you are Indian because you’ve chosen to remain one or become one. There is broadmindedness in it, which will now have to be disassembled by bureaucrats who’d have the task of providing second passports to the well heeled and well travelled.
Let us accept the unstated: that the policy is aimed at overseas Indians from the wealthier countries; like airlines’ frequent flier programs, it rewards those who need the reward less, when compared to other Indians abroad, including citizens of India, who could do with more help from their government. I think of the construction workers in the Middle East, the maids in Southeast Asia, who are left rudderless and are often helpless when their employers mistreat them or sexually harass them, or when their passports are lost or stolen. They are Mr. Vajpayee’s primary responsibility, but they don’t send donations to build a Ram Mandir in Ayodhya, so their needs are clearly less relevant than those of the Overseas Friends of the BJP.
Not only is this policy going to be discriminatory and bad law, it is also bad in intent. Its sole purpose is cynical; to reward wealthy foreigners of Indian origin by giving them the right to acquire property in India without going through too many hassles, and without having to queue up at Indian embassies and high commissions to get visas. I thought the Person of Indian Origin (PIO) card solved that.
This has been a long-standing problem with the Indian elite abroad — of wanting to have their biryani and eating it. They want invitations to soirees hosted by the Indian ambassadors, but do not want to queue up for visas. They want to be invited to dinners with Indian politicians and bask in the reflected glory of citizenship, but don’t want to live in India and pay Indian taxes. They would consider investing in India, so long as India offers two- or three-percentage point interest rates above prevailing international interest rates for some currencies. And in Southeast Asia, in the early 1990s, we saw a weird spectacle, when Malaysia imposed onerous requirements on Indians to get visas to travel to Malaysia. A group of overseas Indians started a spirited email list to think of ideas to plead with the Malaysian governments to think of them — software engineers, bankers, professionals — as somehow different, more equal, “upper caste,” I presume, than the menial workers who overstayed their visas.
We’ve been vetted by the Singapore
government, we are not like ordinary Indians, one of them wrote. We won’t overstay, we work for good companies, another said. I suggested, in jest, that Malaysia could perhaps consider the fact that all of us had gold American Express cards. I was shocked when someone took that idea seriously. Such was their squeamishness over having an Indian passport, such was their desire to distance themselves from the riff-raff. At the first opportunity, they swapped their Indian passport for a Singaporean one. Good luck to them.
Little wonder then, that in India, NRI stands for Not-Required Indians, not Non-Resident Indians.
In fact, the Indian government has gone out of its way to offer benefits to NRIs without getting much in return. Yes, there are privileged rates on fixed deposits, but that’s expensive borrowing for the Indian taxpayer, something India cannot afford and should not offer. And the PIO (Person of Indian Origin) card, which is another expensive perk offered to foreigners who don’t pay Indian taxes.
But like Indians at a wedding buffet, their overseas brethren want more and have returned for another helping, of spring rolls and samosas with barbecue sauce: they want to be American and Indian, Singaporean and Indian. But not, apparently, German and Indian, Malaysian and Indian, or Fijian and Indian yet.
And it is people of Indian origin in those countries that need the support of their mother country. Last year in Germany, an opposition politician launched a campaign, Kinder Statt Indien (Children, not Indians), as a one-party jihad against the Schroeder government’s decision to lure Indian professionals. We should produce more children and make them engineers rather than let the Indians in, was his’mantra.
In Malaysia, the Indians, like the Chinese, face discrimination in jobs and education, because the system prefers bumiputras (sons-of-soils), or Malays, in an institutionalized apartheid that simply hasn’t captured the imagination of protesters the way South Africa’s apartheid did. Many Malaysians of Indian origin have no choice but to spend thousands of dollars to study in Britain, Australia or India, a burden they bear disproportionately, like the Chinese. And Fijian Indians have twice been overthrown from office in Suva, and even after centuries, the local Melanesians continue to question their commitment to Fiji. Historically, ethnicity has played no role in being a citizen of India. That had the wonderful virtue of being consistent and simple. When Idi Amin decided to banish Indians from Uganda, some tens of thousands of them, India was legally right in saying that they were Britain’s responsibility, since they held British passports.
Now that obstinacy may well rank high as one of India’s many economic follies, for it would have made huge economic sense to get those Patels and Madhvanis to move to India and set up factories and unleash an entrepreneurial revolution. But this was 1970s, the time of Garibi Hatao, of planned economics, of bank nationalization, and state control of industry; private capital was to be suspected and taxed.
Those Indians, the Gujarati shopkeepers and Sikh farmers, were better off abroad, there were too many of us at home anyway. So the unwanted East African Indians came here to Britain, and transformed the retail trade, bringing about new vibrancy and fresh sparkle to British corner shops that used to close at 5 pm daily, turning High Streets into ghost towns before people returned home from work. Britain, apparently, had ceased to be a nation of shopkeepers since Napoleon reminded them of it. East African Indians once again made it a nation of shopkeepers, but one in which the consumer’s needs mattered more than the retailer’s.
Today, their sons and daughters go to elite public schools, on their way to professional lives as doctors and lawyers. A former colleague, now an editor at the Economist magazine, predicts there would be an Asian prime minister in Britain within three decades, and he — or she — would be a descendant of the East African Indians. I wouldn’t be surprised.
Economically, India’s decision not to accept the East African Indians in 1971 may have been a flawed one, but legally, the Indira Gandhi administration was right in reminding Britain of its responsibility towards British Asians in Africa. In the 1950s, while visiting the West, the then Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru reminded overseas Indians they must become loyal citizens of their adapted homes first. And that is as it should be.
Whether we came overseas for better professional or economic prospects, whether our parents came here to study, work, do business, or were brought against their will (as in the plantations of Caribbean and Southeast Asia), we have chosen to live our lives abroad, not in India. Unless we hold on to Indian passports (like I do), we have decided to become part of a new country, our new homes, and by acquiring the new citizenship, we have decided to belong elsewhere. That elsewhere has been good to us. It has allowed us to prosper, provide opportunities to our children, which we would not have been able to provide back home in most cases.
And the system has picked out the brightest, and not hindered their access to the highest positions in the fields we have chosen: in America, I think of Zubin Mehta, Rajat Gupta, Victor Menezes, Fareed Zakaria, and Jhumpa Lahiri. (The fact that there are more such examples in the United States than in other countries also says much about how genuinely meritocratic the United States is, unlike other countries; but that’s a separate issue).
As Bharati Mukherjee pointed out in a moving, poignant essay in the New York Times nearly a decade ago during an amnesty period when non-citizens were encouraged to acquire U.S. citizenship, there comes a time to take the decision, to belong. She reached her decision early, in an America three decades ago, coming here from Canada where she faced discrimination, and astounded by this new land welcoming her with open arms (and, over time, the National Book Award for her marvellous collection, The Middleman and Other Stories). Since then, the situation has only improved for new immigrants. In return, Ms. Mukherjee offered America her loyalty.
Mr. Vajpayee doesn’t seem to have grasped that idea of loyalty well’— in his speech in early January, he told overseas Indians they can be dual citizens, but they can’t have dual loyalty. That’s impossible. Citizenship implies loyalty to the ideals that make up the country; not a tax dodge, not a document-of-convenience to travel and buy property. Believing in those ideals does not mean a mindless,’“my country, right or wrong” approach, for there is always room for dissent in pluralistic, mature democracies. And one person’s loyalty is another person’s treason. To me, those who destroyed the Babri Masjid in 1992 betrayed the ideals of India; but many Overseas Friends of the BJP would parrot the Naipaulian line of “inevitable retribution,” and claim that by criticizing the Indian government while abroad I was being disloyal. To each his own. India’s strength is that it can accommodate all views. (That some would like to change that is the real danger facing India, but that’s another issue too). When Ms. Mukherjee wrote her innermost thoughts about acquiring U.S. citizenship and what it means, some overseas Indians saw that as a sell-out — not the fact that she took American citizenship—— many of them did too. But the fact that she celebrated it. In public! Too many Indians abroad remain reluctant citizens overseas, and don’t appear to want to accept the challenge of plunging headlong in the culture of the new land.
Then it hits them, 15 years later, when their son wants to pierce his ears or bring home a black or Vietnamese girlfriend, or when the daughter wants to wear that short skirt, not bigger than a handkerchief, and become a cheerleader, rooting for that handsome Hispanic boy. The Indian passport then becomes a security blanket, a desire to return to the womb, a nostalgic yearning to return, hankering to the perceived loyalty to one’s roots.
But nostalgia is nothing but remembrance of the past without remembering the pain, which forced us to leave that past behind. We are in a new land. It is time to belong, time to own it.