Lifetime visa ancestry check outsource plan
By Charu Sudan Kasturi
New Delhi: India may soon ask other countries to endorse the ancestry of descendants of Indian indentured laborers they have hosted since the early 19th century, to give them lifetime visas through an ambitious project that breaks with traditional national security practices.
The foreign office has recommended issuing Overseas Citizens of India cards – that serve as lifetime visas – to fifth-generation and older migrants if their current country certifies their Indian ancestry, senior officials have told The Telegraph.
The recommendation, made to the home ministry, is the outcome of year-long discussions within the foreign office to resolve a conundrum – how to plug a giant hole in India’s diaspora outreach without compromising national security.
India currently issues OCI cards only up to fourth-generation migrants, a criterion that benefits those who migrated from the country, and the children, grandchildren and great grandchildren of migrants.
But more than half of the 15.4 million-strong Indian diaspora are descendants of indentured workers, taken to East Africa, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands and the Caribbean by colonial powers through the 19th century and the early 20th century, who do not meet the criterion.
The challenge in extending the facility to descendants of older generation migrants lies in the absence in many cases of documentary evidence of their migration from India – a legal and national security requirement, officials said, to avoid misuse.
Getting countries now hosting these diaspora communities to endorse the ancestry of OCI card applicants will eliminate the legal headache India would otherwise face in verifying claims without conclusive documentation.
But it also effectively outsources a role India and governments the world over have traditionally held closely – deciding the eligibility of those seeking to enter the country’s territory.
“We have made a recommendation,” Dnyaneshwar Mulay, secretary in charge of overseas Indian affairs at the foreign office, confirmed in response to a question from this newspaper. “Once that is done (the recommendation is accepted), we will have defined exactly how we will decide who to issue an OCI card to.”
The move to extend the OCI card eligibility began to take shape after criticism from descendants of indentured labourers at a January 2016 meeting chaired by foreign minister Sushma Swaraj.
The criticism stung a government that has made its outreach to the Indian diaspora a central plank of its foreign policy, led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
The foreign office realized that Mauritius offered the best place to start the government’s search for documents that could be used to verify the ancestry of descendants of indentured laborers – known as girmitiyas.
The French, who brought Indian workers to Mauritius, maintained dock records of all those who entered the Indian Ocean island. Mauritius has preserved those records. The country is also home to the fourth-largest Indian diaspora among nations where indentured labourers from India travelled – after Malaysia, Myanmar and South Africa.
In October, Mulay led a team from multiple government arms to Mauritius to examine these records and evaluate if they could form the basis for India to expand the OCI card scheme.
The team concluded, officials said, that in many cases, the documents Mauritius has preserved will enable the descendants of girmitiya workers to establish a direct lineage, while in others, the evidence was suggestive and circumstantial but not conclusive.
In its recommendations following the visit, the foreign office has suggested circumventing the challenge of authenticating inconclusive documents by asking applicants to get the governments of the countries where they are based to formally approve their ancestry.
Effectively, that approval will then serve as a bilateral assurance from the other country to India that the applicant is indeed of Indian ancestry.
The foreign office recommendations also suggest starting the expanded OCI card scheme with Mauritius, and then broadening it to diaspora living in other countries.
The plans to extend the OCI card eligibility to these descendants of indentured labourers – first reported by this newspaper on November 28, 2016 – were formally announced by Prime Minister Modi at the Pravasi Bharatiya Diwas on January 8.
“We are aware of difficulties faced by Persons of Indian Origin from these countries in obtaining an OCI card if they moved abroad four or five generations ago,” Modi said, in the inaugural address at the convention.
“We acknowledge their concerns and have made efforts to address these issues. I am glad to announce that starting with Mauritius, we are working to put in place new procedures and documentation requirements so that the descendants of girmitiyas from this country could become eligible for OCI cards.”
But foreign ministry officials said they would need Modi’s personal support to carry through the project, because of the break it will represent with conventional national security practices – a fact the home ministry is expected to flag as a concern.
India’s obsession with ascertaining the ancestry of every OCI card applicant is rooted in preventing those of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin from using the facility to gain a lifelong visa to enter the country – though many of their ancestors came from an undivided India.
The security establishment’s concerns grew after Pakistani-American David Headley used his US passport to enter India and map sites in Mumbai for terrorists who attacked the city in November 2008.
Since then, the home ministry has strictly tried to segregate between Indian-origin foreigners and others of South Asian ancestry who are foreign citizens.
The foreign ministry’s proposal on expanding the OCI card scheme effectively relies on other countries – instead of New Delhi – carrying out background checks on those applying for the Indian facility.
But it’s a break from tradition India may have to make, officials said, if Modi is to keep his promise.