Last week, the Narendra Modi government announced “the world’s largest evacuation". Air India, air force jets and naval warships are being deployed to bring back 1.8 million Indians. But millions more were conspicuously left out. These are Overseas Citizens of India (OCI), foreigners of Indian origin, many of whom are in distress and desperately seeking to return to India.
According to the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA), there are 28 million people of Indian origin living abroad. They include six million holders of OCI cards, which is meant to ensure privileges that Indian citizens enjoy except for voting rights, holding political office, and owning certain categories of agricultural land. Many OCI card holders live in India as well.
On 18 March, all of them watched in horror as with just 24 hours notice, the Indian government announced “visa-free travel facility granted to OCI card holders stands suspended till 15 April". That deadline passed, but the ban continues. On 8 May, the MEA reiterated it “has kept in abeyance multiple-entry lifelong visas given to OCI card holders till international travel remains suspended" and “they would not be included in the government’s repatriation efforts".
It’s an extraordinary reversal of longstanding assurances, including one made by Modi at the 2017 Pravasi Bharatiya Divas. “We do not care to look at the colour of the passport. It is the blood relationship that matters," the PM had said. Now, OCI card holders are appealing to be put on evacuation lists on humanitarian grounds.
“I feel let down and abandoned by the government" was one of the earliest messages on ‘OCI Return to India’, one of many such WhatsApp groups.
Aravind Arunachalam said he’s stuck in Dallas, US, and losing heart about reaching his wife and kids at their Chennai home. “By way of deeds, India has to demonstrate to the world that it can deal with any disaster without compromising its citizens, be it Indian or OCI," he said.
The current crisis is especially acute for parents living in India, whose children studying abroad are isolated and vulnerable. More than 750,000 students from India attend foreign universities. Many are OCI card holders whose parents live in India, and now they find themselves isolated and vulnerable, as campuses shut down.
(Disclosure: my oldest son is an OCI student in the US, though safe with close family members).
Many peers are not as fortunate. One parent said his daughter, who was born in the US but has lived her entire life in India, “abruptly became homeless, and haphazardly started living in boarding facilities without proper availability of food. She is only 19, and is now living day to day. The fear of having no one to take care of her is deeply worrying and draining us".
One person who never held any illusions about OCI is Shashi Tharoor, a former minister of state for external affairs.
He told Mint, “In fact, an OCI is not citizenship. It was, and remains, nothing more than a lifetime visa on a foreign passport. I argued, both as an NRI myself (at the Pravasi Bharatiya Divas of, I think, 2003) and subsequently as an MP, for genuine dual citizenship, as permitted by many countries. This has never been granted, and indeed is fiercely resisted both by the bureaucracy and many members of the political class."
The MP from Thiruvananthapuram added, “I am not surprised the convenient pretence of special status for OCI holders was abandoned by our government at the first opportunity. Yes, that is a betrayal, but it is of a piece with the inbuilt cynicism of the OCI concept. To name something by a term it was not intended to be is dishonest, and would fail any ‘truth in advertising’ test."
Vivek Menezes is a Goa-based writer and photographer.