Snuggled into the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2019 is an insidious provision. It states that Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) registration can be cancelled if the OCI cardholder violates any of the provisions of the Citizenship Act, or any other existing law that the central government notifies for this purpose.
No doubt, it adds that the OCI card-holder will have the right to be heard before his registration is cancelled. But this is misleading, and there are dangerous precedents set by this provision.
There is, in fact, a double whammy here. One: In subtle ways, concepts of second- or third-class citizenship become entrenched by making a violation of the law grounds for cancellation of OCI registration. Two, the language of the provision suggests that that violation will not be established by due process – through a court of law empowered to establish the violation of that particular law – but instead, summarily heard by the central government through mechanisms under the Citizenship Act.
The concept of an Overseas Citizen of India was introduced in the Citizenship Act, by the BJP-led NDA government itself, as it saw the OCIs as potential investors and funders for elections. The Statement of Objects and Reasons of the Citizenship Amendment Bill, 2003, spelt out that the central government was making provisions for the grant of dual citizenship (following a recommendation by its high-level committee on the Indian diaspora) for persons of Indian origin belonging to certain countries, mainly Australian, American and European ones. There was subtle discrimination here, as countries with largely Muslim populations, and those to which few Hindus migrated, were not included.
In 2005, following an assurance on the occasion of Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas, the Congress-led UPA government expanded the scope of persons of Indian origin to all other countries, as long as their countries allowed dual citizenship, but retained Pakistan and Bangladesh as exceptions.
Once again, the BJP led NDA Government amended the Citizenship Act in 2015, to fill “lacunae that were noticed” during its implementation and its review, and changed the nomenclature from “overseas citizen of India” to “Overseas Citizen of India Cardholder”. It also sought to deny OCI eligibility to not just persons from Bangladesh and Pakistan, but also their children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren.
Like the provisions in the National Citizenship (Registration of Citizens and Issue of National Identity Cards) Rules, 2003, this particular facet of the Citizenship Amendment Act 2003 and the Citizenship Amendment Act 2015 went unnoticed.
Pakistan has a significant population of Goans, popularly called Karachi Goans. The grapevine has it that the other key provision in CAA 2019, of selectively enabling citizenship possibilities for illegal immigrants up to December 31, 2014, can be used by Goan catholics in Karachi to return ‘home’. But these Catholic Karachi Goans are not ‘illegal migrants’. With the amendment of 2015, not just Karachi Goans, but even their children, grandchildren or great-grandchildren, cannot tap into the avenue of OCI registration otherwise available for persons of Indian origin, which provides dual citizenship with restrictions.
Goa has a disproportionate number of OCI cardholders in relation to its population, because, for social and economic mobility, many Goans obtained Portuguese passports. Obtaining, or rather reaffirming, Portuguese citizenship was a right of Goans who were citizens of Portugal at the time of India’s annexation of territories of Goa, Daman and Diu.
Upon obtaining a Portuguese passport, these persons must surrender their Indian passports. Given how the law is structured and implemented, the only way Goans with Portuguese passports were permitted to maintain a physical connect with Goa was through registration as an OCI.
Broadly, as it stands today, under the Citizenship Act 1955, a person is eligible to be registered as an overseas citizen if she is a former citizen of India, or eligible to become a citizen of India at the time of the commencement of the constitution, or belonged to a territory that became a part of India after August 15, 1947 (as in the case of Goa) and is now a citizen of another country, or is married to a citizen of India or overseas citizen of India.
OCI cardholders are not entitled to full citizenship rights. But they have some privileges as compared to foreigners, such as having an Indian visa for a lifetime, being able to hold all but agricultural or tenanted properties, and not having to report to the Foreigner Regional Registration Office (FRRO) no matter how long they stay in the country.
Since many present OCI cardholders are those who reaffirmed Portuguese citizenship – primarily to get a job in the European Union and escape their low social and economic status – for many, their migration is temporary.
Many have houses in Goa which they renovate with their foreign income, and to which they hope to return to in their sunset years, apart from visiting during festivals and family functions. Among these are especially many from the coastal stretch, including those from fishing communities who have suffered on account of depleting fish stocks.
Until now, these OCI cardholders could afford to be vocal on concerns besieging their native localities and Goa in general. This may soon be a thing of the past, if the provisions of CAA 2019 remain on the statute book. If they voice their opposition to ‘development’ projects, including those along the coast, they risk being slapped with notices of violation of some odd law and attracting the cancellation of OCI registration.
In a charged and polarised environment where actual perpetrators of violence are not even booked, and political dissenters are brazenly profiled and slapped with false cases, there remains little doubt that the CAA 2019 will be leveraged against politically dissenting OCI cardholders – including those who question destructive development models and projects such as marinas and coal corridors built at the cost of coastal communities and ecosystems.
India already has a history of canceling OCI registration, on the grounds of concealment of material fact – the merits of the cancellation notwithstanding. The cancellation of the OCI of Aatish Taseer is a case in point. Such incidents will only increase with the introduction of provisions that derogate from the already existing due processes of law to determine a violation of the law.
Apart from the other problematic aspects of the CAA 2019, just the provision on OCI can prove to be very damaging to the interests of many natives of Goa and other parts of India.
Albertina Almeida is a Goa-based lawyer and human rights activist.