The recent reiteration of rights, privileges, and rules for OCI cardholders may not be entirely new but some of these rules appear punitive as if all Overseas Citizens are “Criminals.” As an OCI, I never felt intimidated during my frequent visits home but now the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) has put me on notice, and I felt insulted. I understand that the restrictions are based on the MHA document of November 2019 but that does not make everything right.
Is MHA’s own failure in March 2020 to enforce the restrictions on Tablighi Jamaat during the nationwide lockdown leading to a broad-brush approach to tightening the rules on all OCIs? As many as 2500 Tablighi were found staying as a congregation against government orders, many traveling across India and hiding in the mosques, and hundreds were arrested for violation of visa rules.
A year later, MHA reiterates the restrictions on OCI cardholders requiring, “prior permission for a set of activities that include research, journalism, mountaineering, missionary or Tablighi work, and visits to restricted areas.” My most serious objection is on “research” and the second on “journalistic” activities. These should not have been coupled with activities leading to conversion under the guise of religious freedom and going places that are restricted for national security reasons. I fully support that anyone engaging in such anti-national activities must be punished to the highest degree. In fact, s/he must not be allowed to enter India in the first place. This must be the highest priority of India’s intelligence to track them rather than suspecting all OCIs and treating them as “criminals.”
In my informed view, undertaking research by an OCI is generally an intellectual and academic exercise that must remain an unrestricted opportunity for India to progress and prosper, and be part of the global community of researchers. Similarly, when journalistic activities are unduly curtailed, India is in denial of respecting freedom of the press, the lifeblood of longstanding democracy. Therefore, MHA’s approach to broadly restricting legitimate research, journalism, and travel, etc. is inappropriate, unjustified, and perhaps unlawful.
Any citizen is innocent unless proven guilty whether living in India or overseas. I fully respect the decision made by the Modi government on tightening rules against foreign exchange transactions for unlawful conversion and inciting anti-national propaganda under FCRA. Similarly, I appreciate and stand behind the removal of Article 370, initiating CAA, and the Farmer’s Bill for the benefit of an average farmer. However, in most cases, the Government failed in launching a widespread campaign and communication to the common men/women- what and why?
Likewise, the documented rules and restrictions by MHA are without much rationale. I suggest that MHA and MEA (Ministry of External Affairs) collaborate and engage India’s foreign missions worldwide to reach out to OCIs and assure them that the restrictions on activities like research, journalism, and travel are not meant to intimidate, insult, and insinuate the law-abiding OCIs. It can’t hurt, but a benefit, to offer examples of what type of research and journalism may be questionable for OCIs and what places may be out of bounds for them and why?
OCI card process: While, on the topic of OCI, let me draw attention to the archaic rules and unfriendly website for the ‘miscellaneous services’ being riddled with unnecessary documentation requirements. For example, when seeking renewal or replacement of an OCI card under miscellaneous services, why not a simpler application process because most personal and family history of the applicant was recorded with the initial OCI approval? Another example of ambiguity is that the Reissue/ Transfer of OCI is MANDATORY stating, “Once after completion of 50 years of age.” What if the first OCI card was issued to a person only after the age of 50? I believe, s/he need not get the OCI reissued but the statement is at best very vague. Being in a similar boat myself, I was confused and when initiated the process, it was the most painful exercise and therefore I did not complete it.
In fact, the outsourcing of these services to VFS Global as the exclusive service provider, in my view, is an unwise decision. I have seen many conversations among the OCI users about VFS Global not being friendly, prompt, and courteous because of the “exclusivity.” The consulates and embassies generally are not accessible to take calls and if you are lucky to get through to talk, they simply ask to contact VFS Global. I wonder if MHA has ever made an attempt to seek their services to find firsthand how difficult it is to communicate with them. I define VFS as a VERY FRUSTRATING SERVICE.
I strongly recommend that MHA/MEA periodically survey the OCIs about the issues and challenges they face and use that feedback to change/improve the rules and processes. The OCIs may not engage in rallies and protests to express their dissatisfaction, but they deserve clear and concise communications. The OCIs should not only be a source of investments and foreign exchange reserves in India but proud community ambassadors for promoting India’s rich cultural heritage and economic interests. While I am pleased to acknowledge improved engagement of Indian missions abroad with NRIs and OCIs, there remains considerable room for improvements.