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
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
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
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
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.