New Delhi: Eighty Overseas Citizens of India (OCIs) have moved the Supreme Court over concerns of not being able to freely express their views and register dissent against the government, the Times of India reported.
OCIs are persons who hold a passport of a foreign country but have connections with India by virtue of birth or parentage. They do not have Indian citizenship or Indian passports but an ‘OCI card’ issued by the government which gives them residence and employment rights.
According to the report, the petitioners said that Section 7D of the Citizenship Act allows the Union government to cancel the registration of OCIs and prohibit them from residing in India over violation of any law or for showing disaffection to the constitution of India.
“Section 7D(b) of the Act allows the government to cancel a person’s OCI registration if they show disaffection to the Constitution of India and section 7D(da) allows cancellation of OCI registration for violation of any law. Both these provisions under section 7D are arbitrary and have a chilling effect on the freedom of expression of OCIs, several of whom, in spite of being permanently resident in India, cannot express peaceful dissent against the state for fear that such dissent will amount to either disaffection to the Constitution of India or the violation of any law so prescribed,” they said.
Apart from this, they have been barred from engaging in certain professions, including research and journalistic work, in the country, without official permission.
“By limiting the number of professions that OCIs can have parity with NRIs in pursuing, several OCIs practising other non-enumerated professions are hindered from meaningfully participating in and contributing to their professional streams in India. Although several OCIs reside and pay taxes in India, such persons are unable to meaningfully voice their grievance with local government authorities over civic infrastructure out of fear that their overseas citizenship may be cancelled for expressing their right to raise public grievances,” they said.
According to the daily, senior advocate R. Venkataramani, representing the OCIs, 57 of whom reside in Bengaluru, told the Supreme Court that though OCIs contribute a lot to India through tax payment and their profession, they live in constant state of fear of losing their OCI status because of the “arbitrary power conferred on the government” to cancel their status. The bench has sought the Centre’s response over the matter, the report added.
The bench comprised Chief Justice S.A. Bobde and Justices A.S. Bopanna and V. Ramasubramanian.
The petitioners, led by Bengaluru-based medicine expert Radhika Thappeta, said the government’s policy decisions curtail the basic rights of OCIs and give the government unbridled discretionary powers to terminate their citizenship.
Frontline spoke to Anand, an OCI, who expressed disappointment over the new rules and said: “The original premise of the OCI was to give Indians the opportunity of dual citizenship. At least that is what I thought was the original charter. As an OCI now I cannot be part of any religious organisation for travel purposes. That was not there before. What was the government thinking when it contemplated awarding dual citizenship? That was a BJP government [in 2003] too. Not having voting rights as an OCI is fine. But why would the government not want OCIs to buy agricultural land, not be part of the journalist community and not visit areas which are supposedly security risks as far as foreign nationals are concerned? Why reinforce these rules now?”
The original purpose of the OCI scheme was to tell people of Indian origin that even if they could not be citizens, they would be given as many rights as citizens as possible, senior advocate at the Supreme Court of India, Sanjay Hegde, told Frontline. He said: “The new rules change the emphasis from near-citizenship to be above par foreigners. Technically the government is right. The OCI card was all along a long-term visa, but apart from long-term stay, it also gave a lot of privileges, or the attempt was to give a near-citizenship experience. These rules have basically been tightened to get over a few court rulings. It appears to be a knee-jerk reaction among the bureaucracy where one does not have to necessarily change parliamentary law but change regulations that can be done at the executive level. They have the rule making power as long as procedure is complied with and laid on the floor of parliament and so on.”
The petitioners have also added that even after working and residing permanently in India, they were often disentitled to seek information from state authorities under the Right to Information Act.
On adoption rights, the November 2019 MHA notification granted these rights to OCIs on par with NRIs. “However, where an OCI or NRI living abroad adopts a child from India following the inter-country adoption regulations, then the host foreign country often automatically grants foreign citizenship to the adopted child who has at least one parent as a citizen of that host country. As per section 9(1) of the Citizenship Act, this results in the child automatically losing his or her Indian citizenship without granting any opportunity to the child to retain his or her Indian citizenship on attaining majority,” the petitioners said.