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Diaspora, citizenship and the right to vote



On January 9, 2012, addressing those gathered at the annual Pravasi Bharatiya Divas gathering, the prime minister announced that non-resident Indians could now vote in Indian elections. (1) Predictably, reactions on Twitter were quick to come, and I was one of a few who expressed reservations. But I stayed out of discussions, partly wanting to learn more and partly because of other preoccupations. Citizenship is too big a topic, too important for instant opinion; and ultimately that is what voting expresses. And the news report left many things unspecified. Who is an NRI? How would they exercise the vote? Were there any limits on the right to vote? Unless this is an issue you have been monitoring diligently, the answers were not top-of-mind for most.
 
If there is an emerging consensus to enfranchise the diaspora, then it must result in some substantive discussion about exactly who gets to vote, how they get to vote and what they get to vote for, writes Swarna Rajagopalan

The right to vote is a key political right in any democracy. With independence and a new Constitution, Indians got the right to vote relatively easily. Article 326 of the Indian Constitution grants the right to vote to “every person who is a citizen of India and who is not less than 18 years of age.” And who is a citizen of India?

Anyone who lives in India, and was born in India, or whose parents were born in India or who had been living in India for at least five years before 1950 when the Constitution came into force, is eligible to be an Indian citizen (Article 5). Article 8 suggests that a person living outside “shall be deemed to be a citizen of India” if registered as such at an Indian consulate or embassy in the country of her residence. This does not apply to those who have applied for and got the citizenship of another state. Thus, Indian passport-holders who are permanent residents are still Indian citizens.

But are all Indian citizens living abroad the same? There are some whose connection to India is still an immediate reality—students, people posted abroad for short periods or people who seek contract employment abroad. Some of these will change their citizenship status in time, and others will retain their Indian citizenship, but the passage of time changes the quality of their Indian connection. For instance, in the US context, as an Indian student goes from a student visa to a work to permanent residence, she might still travel home often, follow Indian news and stay in touch with things Indian as she might at home. But we do see the connection transformed as she moves ahead professionally, maybe sets up home and starts a family, definitely when she buys property and raises children in the US. All these are good things, of course; one is merely signaling the changing nature of the connection with India, and with it, in almost all cases, a change in awareness and engagement with Indian reality.

On the other hand, with easier travel, the information revolution and constant seamless communication, connections are now easier than ever before. People feel connected even though in reality they may be less and less affected by outcomes in the home country. Even though, in fact, the host country has become the home country for all-but-emotional purposes. This new age changes all the questions we ever asked about belonging, about citizenship and identity. The in/out definitions of citizenship have long begun to be modified by states. Many nation-states permit dual citizenship these days. Permanent residence grants individuals almost every right that citizens enjoy; this usually stops short of voting in all or certain elections and the right to contest elections.
In order to fortify and capitalise on its relationship with the large global Indian diaspora, the Government of India has introduced intermediate categories of belonging—intermediate between citizenship and being an alien. In 2002, the category of ‘Person of Indian Origin’ was introduced. Anyone who has ever held Indian citizenship, whose parents, grandparents or spouse are Indian, can apply for this status, which grants them visa-free travel to India and many economic privileges but stops short of voting and travel to restricted areas. In 2005, India’s citizenship law was amended to accommodate the idea of ‘Overseas Citizenship of India’, a compromise between recognising only single and recognising multiple citizenship. Both PIOs and OCIs face restrictions on voting, participation in elections, public employment, travel to restricted areas and property ownership. The equation of full citizenship with voting is thus well reinforced.

All these categories get conflated when we talk about voting rights for Indians abroad. Until recently, Indians abroad could not vote during Indian elections. The recent changes to the Representation of the People Act, 1950, grant them that right. Indian citizens living abroad can have their name registered in the constituency of the Indian address in their passport, and can vote by visiting their constituency on election day. This is not such a great change, actually. Earlier, it was harder to register to vote perhaps if you lived abroad, but this is still not the same as a postal ballot or a ballot that can be cast at the local embassy or consulate. It is not easy to arrange to travel at election time, especially since election dates are not fixed in India as they are in some places abroad.
So on the ground, not much has changed.

What are some reasons why people (like me) have reservations about the extension of political rights to non-residents, especially non-resident non-citizens?
Step back for an instant, and let us think about the Indian diaspora. In some ways, it is as old as Indian history, with Indian trade and colonisation in adjacent regions. Modern times saw both forced labour migration to plantations and the voluntary migration of traders, money-lenders and job-seekers across the British Empire. By the end of the 19th century, Indians were also going abroad for professional studies and training. Let us not forget the migration of Indians to the American west in search of agricultural, forestry or railroad jobs. In the decades since independence, Indians have continued to emigrate in search of opportunity. In addition, where diaspora Indians have been evicted or have faced regime change, they have undertaken a second migration. The result, Indians are everywhere—something travelling Indians from India frequently encounter and with mostly positive emotions. What if all these countless Indians could vote? Would they be equally aware? So many generations away from that first migration, why would they need voice in an Indian context? And so if the push to grant non-resident Indians the vote does not cover everyone, who does and who should it cover?

The Chinese experience has been interesting. A 2008 article estimated that there were 60 million Chinese worldwide. (2) Under Sun Yat-sen, in the early-1920s, the Kuomintang saw overseas Chinese as a resource of China’s modernisation. The People’s Republic of China however does not share this view. A travel site offers two reasons. “First, Chinese Nationality Law has its special historical background. After the liberation of China in 1949, many doubts and troubles were caused in some countries especially those in Southeast Asia by a lot of overseas Chinese with dual nationality. It was a misunderstanding but did harm to the ties between China and some countries.” (3) The second has to do with jurisdictional clarity; single citizenship makes it easy to process legal matters.

Closer home, diaspora communities have been political players in various contexts. Sikhs around the world lent their support to the demand for Khalistan, and while Punjab itself is quiet, the idea of Khalistan remains alive in Sikh communities abroad. Sri Lankan Tamil communities are the last bastion of Eelam nationalism that has suffered military defeat at home. The “war” is over in Sri Lanka, but the conflict is unresolved. After the 1990s, it is also  common knowledge that the support of overseas Indians to Hindutvavadi groups in India is great. It is this support that made mobilisation for the destruction of the Babri Masjid and the Gujarat riots possible. In all these cases, definitive empirical research remains to be done, but the connections are there to see. A final example: Maldivians abroad played a large part in bringing about regime change in the Maldives through years of lobbying at human rights institutions and venues, years of gathering support and articulating dissent and for some, ending exile in courting arrest.

Whether diaspora engagement in these cases was/is right or wrong, depends on our perspective on each cause. What is undeniable is that in all cases, the diaspora communities marshalled and channelled resources to militant campaigns in the homeland. In all cases, the human cost to those who lived in these places was far greater than those who lived far away, unless they chose to come back. The political choices of the diaspora created tragic consequences for those at home. If it is logical that those who live with the consequences of a course of action or a policy must be the ones to determine its content, then restrictions on voting make sense. They seem intuitive.
Here are some problems with that reasoning. The idea of citizenship has also long been tied to that of making the ultimate sacrifice—of dying (and killing) for the nation. In patriarchal societies (and most societies are patriarchal), men fought in armies while women tended the homestead; this division of labour created a hierarchy of belonging and of citizenship that favoured men. But if this logic is wrong for gender relations, why should it be applied to the rights of the diaspora? Moreover, it is also problematic in an age where arguably, voting is the most harmless (maybe even ineffectual) way for diaspora communities to participate in home country politics. Diaspora activism does not always follow a sustained and rooted engagement with Indian realities. It has often been a response to emotional appeal, to nostalgia or to extortion. Would the right to vote offer members of the large and diverse diaspora an alternative mode of engagement whose damage potential is limited?

If there is an emerging consensus to enfranchise the diaspora, then it must result in some substantive discussion about exactly who gets to vote; how they get to vote; and what they get to vote for. Will postal ballots or voting at embassies be introduced for NRIs? Will there be a time at which this right lapses, ie a provision that prohibits someone who has lived abroad for 15 years from voting? Will there be phased degrees of these rights for PIOs and OCIs? What about other expats living in India? Who will these new voters vote for? Will they form a special separate constituency? Will that electorate follow a list system? The problem is that amid the clamour of opinion and the glamour of events like Pravasi Bharatiya Divas, there is no place for these discussions. Perhaps their absence is actually a measure of the depth of ‘NRI’ commitment to this question which is mirrored by the government’s own inch-by-inch symbolic (rather than substantial) approach.

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