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India blocks access, residency permits of overseas ‘citizen’ critics

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Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi often draws crowds of supporters from the Indian diaspora on his foreign visits. But back home, his administration has been revoking visas and residency permits of foreign nationals of Indian origin as well as spouses of Indian citizens. For those denied access or kicked out of India, the experience can be traumatic.

 

Vanessa Dougnac was at home in her New Delhi apartment on January 18, when she received a hand-delivered envelope that raised her spirits.

The French journalist glanced at the letterhead bearing the insignia of the Indian interior ministry’s Foreigners Regional Registration Office (FRRO) and immediately thought this meant good news.

“Then I read the letter. It was totally the opposite. It was really, really bad news,” she recounted. 

Dougnac, 51, had lived in India for a quarter-century, or most of her adult life. For 23 years, she served as the India-based freelance correspondent for a number of French publications. Along the way, she covered stories across the country, married an Indian national, raised a son, and mastered the ropes in the place she came to call home.

But in India, things that were once fairly straightforward were now getting complicated – and stressful.

The official letter, delivered on January 18, informed the veteran French journalist that her Indian residency had been revoked. 

Dougnac had joined the growing list of overseas critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s Hindu nationalist policies being banned from India, according to the New York-based Human Rights Watch.

They are part of the Modi administration’s broader crackdown on Indian citizenship laws, which have snowballed in various forms. But the intent of the “ever-expanding arsenal of laws and policies” is singular: to “target and punish dissenting voices”, said Amnesty International in a statement noting the international human rights contraventions that have increased during Modi’s 10 years in power.

With the upcoming 2024 elections widely predicted to propel Modi into his next decade in power, experts warn that India’s secular democracy is being reshaped as a Hindu-first majoritarian nation intolerant to dissent and minority religious communities. 

Citizenship lies at the heart of the reshaping, with the government pushing through laws and regulations on myriad fronts, upending lives and plunging dissenters into an omnipresent state of dread.

Diaspora with dollars to invest home

Dougnac was one of nearly 4 million people holding an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card, which comes as a light blue, passport-lookalike and confers on the holder visa and residency rights.

The OCI is a form of permanent residency granted to people of Indian origin and their spouses.
The OCI is a form of permanent residency granted to people of Indian origin and their spouses. © Handout

Since India does not permit dual citizenship, OCI cards are provided for the equivalent of $275 to foreign nationals of Indian origin and the spouses of Indian nationals or OCI card-holders.

The residency status is the latest iteration of a decades-long bid by successive governments to tap into the economic potential of the Indian diaspora, the largest in the world, clocking nearly 18 million in 2020, according to UN figures. It’s also among the wealthiest, with strong ties to the motherland. In 2022, for instance, India’s inward remittances hit a record of almost $108 billion, around 3% of GDP, more than in any other country.

Attracting the diaspora’s dollars without offering citizenship rights historically entails acronyms in India. NRIs (Non-Resident Indians) before the 1990s gave way to PIOs (Person of Indian Origin) before the nomenclature settled on the current OCI. The latest overseas “citizen” of India is a misnomer since holders do not have voting rights or citizenship guarantees. But since the OCI privileges were an improvement on the earlier NRI and PIO categories, few made any fuss.  

That was until the government began tinkering with citizenship and visa regulations after Modi was re-elected in 2019 to a second term in office.

Many acronyms, few rights 

Just months after Modi’s May 2019 re-election, the Indian parliament, dominated by the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), passed a controversial citizenship amendment law, which gained notoriety as the country erupted in what was commonly called “anti-CAA” (Citizenship Amendment Act) protests.

File photo of anti-CAA protests in Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi, taken January 18, 2020.
File photo of anti-CAA protests in Shaheen Bagh, New Delhi, taken January 18, 2020. © Altaf Qadri, AP

The new law, which offers citizenship to non-Muslim migrants and refugees from neighbouring countries, was widely criticised for discriminating against Muslims, an allegation the Modi government denies.

While the anti-CAA protests drew international press coverage, the insertion of a subclause covering OCI cancellations passed largely unnoticed.

As Modi nudged past the half-way mark of his second term, the regulations got tighter. By 2021, the government required its overseas “citizens” to apply for “special permission” to “undertake” research, journalistic, missionary or mountaineering “activities”.

So on January 18, when Dougnac received a letter from the Foreign Regional Registration Office (FRRO), she initially thought she had finally received her journalist permit, which was denied in September 2022, for no stated reason.

For the freelance journalist, the denial of a journalist permit meant a precarious dip in her income and she was eager to get back to work.

But that was not to be. The FRRO letter revoking Dougnac’s OCI instead accused her and her articles of being “malicious” and of harming “the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India”. The notice put the onus on the freelance journalist, requiring her to respond to why her OCI should not be cancelled. 

Dougnac has launched a petition in the Delhi High Court, adding to the legal appeals and challenges launched by several others in a similar state. But nearly a month after she received her notification, Dougnac was forced to leave the country she had made her home for 25 years and return to France. 

In a statement released February 16, the French journalist noted that it had become “clear that I cannot keep living in India and earning my livelihood. I am fighting these accusations before the competent forums and I have full faith in the legal process. But I can’t afford to wait for its outcome. The proceedings with respect to my OCI status have shattered me,” she noted.

‘Showing animus’ to governments, not country

The list of shattered lives has been increasing over the past few months, perpetuating a climate of fear among overseas Indians. An investigative report published on February 12 by Indian news site Article 14 found that more than 102 OCIs were cancelled under section 7D between 2014 and 2023.

Many targeted OCI-holders prefer not to speak to the press out of fear of scuppering their appeals process and being permanently deprived of the ability to travel to a country where many have families, including aging parents and ailing loved ones.

Some high-profile cases do make the news, such as British-American writer and journalist Aatish Taseer, whose OCI was revoked in 2019, shortly after Time magazine published his excoriating cover story, “India’s Divider in Chief”, on Modi’s brand of Hindutva populism.

Indian authorities said Taseer’s OCI was revoked because he “attempted to conceal” the fact that his biological father was a Pakistani national. The journalist, who was brought up in India by his single mother and wrote a critically acclaimed book in 2009 on his journey to meet his father, Pakistan’s former Punjab governor Salman Taseer – who was assassinated two years after his son’s book was published – dismissed the claim.

The official cancellation explanations for the recent spate of OCI scraps include ill-defined allegations of “showing animus” towards India, or “attempting to destabilise the social fabric” of the country. 

“In some cases, the authorities have openly cited criticism of BJP government policies as evidence to revoke the visa status,” noted Human Rights Watch, citing the case of octogenarian British activist Amrit Wilson, whose OCI was cancelled due to her social media posts on the Kashmir crisis and a 2020-2021 farmers protest movement.

Indian authorities note that governments across the world have the discretion to grant or refuse visas to their countries. It’s a point that Meenakshi Ganguly, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch, acknowledges. “Of course, every government has the right to determine who gets visas or not. But those rights cannot be based on discriminatory ideas,” she noted. “Any democracy relies on a foundational principle of permitting dissent. That is what distinguishes it from authoritarianism. Now all dissent and all ideas may not be accepted by the state. But the fact that those opinions are put forward should not be seen immediately as something that is against the country, it is against government policies, and governments change.”

‘I miss India’

In its attempts to ensure the government does not change after the 2024 general election, the Modi administration has been pushing through key campaign promises that are popular with the BJP’s Hindu nationalist base.

On March 11, just weeks ahead of the elections, the Indian government announced the implementation of the new citizenship law. While parliament approved the CAA in 2019, the Modi government held off on the implementation following deadly protests against a law that was widely viewed as discriminatory against Muslims.

Responding to the move, the US expressed “concern” with a State Department spokesperson noting that Washington is “closely monitoring how this act will be implemented”.

The concern was echoed by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “As we said in 2019, we are concerned that India’s Citizenship (Amendment) Act 2019 (CAA) is fundamentally discriminatory in nature and in breach of India’s international human rights obligations,” said a spokesperson.

The Modi administration’s response to the expressions of concern was forthright. The citizenship law was an “internal matter”, an Indian foreign ministry spokesperson told reporters in New Delhi, noting that the US State Department’s statement was “misplaced, misinformed and unwarranted”. 

But Ganguly believes the changes in citizenship and residency laws warrant the attention of India’s democratic allies, particularly those measures that affect their own nationals of Indian origins. “It needs attention from foreign governments, because there is a lot of interest in the Indian market, and of course for strategic interests. Those are legitimate interests. But when they want to do business with India, foreign governments need to be aware that any claims of partnerships between democracies is seriously undermined if the government is going to be so repressive on freedom of speech and in cracking down on its critics,” she noted.

As India heads for critical elections, Dougnac is in France, watching the coverage from thousands of miles away. “I covered elections in India for 20 years. Now for the first time, I will not be there to cover it. I miss India,” she said. 

While her appeal works its way through the Indian courts, the French journalist confesses she’s still in a state of shock. “Really, it’s too emotional for me,” she confessed. “I led a life filled with adventures and interactions across the subcontinent, and had the opportunity to witness over two decades of India’s history. Now I’m in France, I feel like I’m in exile in my own country.”

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