This story was revised at 815 pm on Sunday, March 7, 2021
An official Home Ministry notification issued in New Delhi on March 4, 2021 has removed some rights of the movement of former Indian nationals and Persons of Indian Origin (PIO), raising eyebrows and angering some lobby groups.
All people currently holding Overseas Citizenship of India Cards (or OCI Cardholders) are people of Indian origin. The OCI Scheme, which was suspended last year with the outbreak of Covid-19 has been revived. Those holding OCI Cards can therefore travel to India as they had done in the past.
Special Permission for specified activities
The Notification, which has entered the Indian Government’s official Gazette, states that OCI cardholders must obtain ‘a Special Permission’ or a ‘Special Permit’ from a competent authority (usually from Indian Embassies and High Commissions) in various countries or from the Foreigners Regional Registration Officer (FRRO) to undertake Research, Missionary or Tabligh or Mountaineering or Journalistic activities.
The notification also requires Special Permission or Special Permit for all OCI Cardholders to undertake internship in any foreign diplomatic missions or foreign government organisations in India or employment in any foreign diplomatic missions in India and visit any place which falls within the Protected or Restricted or Prohibited Areas as notified by the Central Government or a competent authority.”
Many may not be aware that much of the restrictions have been in place since long, although not strictly enforced. For instance, journalists (including OCI Cardholders and PIO) are not allowed to visit India for journalistic purposes unless a special permit is obtained prior to travel. Journalists accompanying Heads of State and Prime Ministers of governments receive such Permits through their diplomatic missions overseas.
OCI and PIO
It is important to note that on January 9, 2005, the government merged PIO Cards with that of OCI, removing some of the differences that existed. Until then, a person who held an OCI Card was a former national of India holding Indian passport.
A Person of Indian Origin is usually one who has never had an Indian Passport, usually born to parents, grandparents and ancestors who left India before January 26, 1950 and given up Indian citizenship, having become citizens of the country to which they migrated.
The new rules are a reassertion of fresh guidelines issued by the Home Ministry in India on November 15, 2019, covering a range of issues.
For instance, it states that OCI Cardholders will be treated as ‘Non Resident Indians’ (NRIs) (who are citizens of India who do not normally live in India) and claim quota seats in educational institutions based on All India Entrance Tests such as National Eligibility cum Entrance Test (NEET), Joint Entrance Examination (Mains), Joint Entrance Examination (Advanced) or such other All India Professional Tests.
However, OCI Cardholders cannot sit for Indian Foreign Service, Indian Administrative Service and similar Central and State Government Services.
They cannot contest or vote in any election-Federal, States, Councils, Panchayats and so on. OCI Cardholders cannot also apply for government jobs.
(AFP Picture through Scroll India)
No Dual Citizenship Scheme
The notification reiterates that OCI cardholders are those who hold foreign passports and hence cannot be deemed as citizens of India. It also reiterates that India does not allow dual citizenship but provides certain benefits under Section 7B (1) of the Citizenship Act 1955.
In 2003, the then Home Minister Lal Krishna Advani proposed Dual Citizenship Scheme as a part of wider conversation but the proposal was later dropped.
Not many countries allow Dual Citizenship. Prominent among them are Austria, the Netherlands, Poland, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Japan, Nepal and countries of the Arab Gulf.
Students petition Courts
An official of the Home Ministry said that many students holding OCI cards have filed petitions in Indian courts challenging the Government and stating that they are eligible to seek admission against general seats in Medica, Engineering and other government colleges if they clear the entrance tests.
In March 2019, the Ministry issued a clarification to the Karnataka High Court that students with OCI cards had “parity with NRIs and can claim only NRI quota seats.”
However, on December 15, 2020, the Karnataka High Court directed that students with OCI Cards are to be considered as Citizens of India for admission to professional courses and directed the State government to admit them to undergraduate professional course including Engineering, Medical and Dental, even under the government and institutional quotas.
The Home Ministry notification of March 4, 2021 states that “OCI Cardholders shall not be eligible for admission against any seat reserved exclusively for Indian citizens.”
The new notification also requires all OCI cardholders who are normally resident in India to intimate the FRRO by email every time they change their permanent residential address and their occupation.
Benefits that continue
The notification gives parity to OCIs with Indian nationals in the matter of tariffs in air fares in domestic sectors, entry fees for visiting national parks, wildlife sanctuaries, national monuments, historical sites and museums in India. It gives parity to OCIs with NRIs in the matter of inter-country adoption of Indian children subject to the compliance of the procedure as laid down by the competent authority for such adoption, purchase or sale of immovable properties other than agricultural land or farmhouse or plantation property and to pursue the following professions: Doctors, Dentists, Nurses And Pharmacists, Advocates, Architects and Chartered Accountants.
In respect of all other economic, financial and educational fields not specified in the notification, the OCI cardholder shall have the same rights and privileges as a foreigner.
Ease of travel for OCI Cardholders
Following the outbreak of Covid-19, the Indian government had suspended the OCI Cards Scheme.
However, the government eased the restrictions late last year, allowing all OCI Cardholders to travel to India as in the past. There is therefore no need for OCI Cardholders to obtain visas.
A Home Ministry notification said that the government has decided to make a graded relaxation in visa and travel restrictions for more categories of foreign nationals and Indian nationals who wish to enter or leave India.
“Under this graded relaxation, the government has decided to restore with immediate effect all existing visas, except electronic visa, tourist visa and medical visa,” the statement said.
The permission for Overseas Citizens of India and foreign nationals to enter the country includes authorised air or water routes, including flights operated under the Vande Bharat Mission air transport bubble arrangements or by any non-scheduled commercial flights as allowed by the Ministry of Civil Aviation.
All foreign nationals inside India, whose visas have expired and cannot travel due to the travel restrictions, can apply for their visa extension without any additional fee.
Prominent IP Lawyer T Prashant Reddy (Twitter)
Position reversed after 16 years
Writing in Scroll, T Prashant Reddy, a prominent IP Lawyer, said that the notification by the Home Affairs Ministry is not surprising.
“For some time now, the Ministry has dedicated its efforts to reduce the concept of OCIs to a glorified long-term visa programme rather than implement it as a dual citizenship programme, as was the intent of Parliament when then Home Minister LK Advani piloted the Citizenship (Amendment) Act, 2003, through Parliament.
“The Notification now equates OCIs to ‘foreign nationals’ in respect of “all other economic, financial and educational fields” for the purposes of the Foreign Exchange Management Act, 2003 although past circulars by the Reserve Bank of India under FEMA will hold ground. This reverses the position that has held for the last 16 years wherein OCIs were equated to Non-Resident Indians rather than ‘foreign nationals’ for the purposes of their economic, financial and educational rights,” he said.
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