By Swapan Dasgupta
A Pakistani TV reporter’s outrage over the visa-less entry granted to Prime Minister Narendra Modi for his impulsive Christmas visit to Nawaz Sharif’s grand residence in Lahore has gone viral on social media. No doubt the reporter’s breathless anger was amusing but it would seem he was also making a serious point. Had a person of lesser standing than India’s Prime Minister presented himself at the immigration counter of Lahore airport with an Indian passport and no valid visa, he would have been lucky to be merely bundled back into the first available flight out of the country. More likely he would have spent Boxing Day and more being subjected to unending interrogation.
Visa-less travel may have been the general norm prior to 1914 when even passports were a rarity. However, as the world has become a smaller place and international travel more common, there has been a corresponding determination to regulate entry (and, occasionally, exit) into sacred national boundaries. The many tens of thousands of refugees from Syria who entered Europe from across the waters in Turkey did no doubt make a mockery of the belief that national boundaries can be effectively policed—something India had experienced all along its borders with Bangladesh. However, the net outcome of the exodus from Syria was to increase the determination to regulate immigration into the countries of the European Union. In fact, the future of seamless travel within EU is itself in some doubt.
In India, however, we are witnessing a movement in an opposite direction. After the refugee influx from the two wings of Pakistan, from Burma and from Sri Lanka in the immediate aftermath of Independence, there was a determined move to enforce border control. From the late-1960s, when Indira Gandhi discovered the destabilising ‘foreign hand’, entry into India for foreigners who preferred the legitimate route, became a daunting proposition. Some of this was a consequence of the alarm over the evangelical activities of Christian missionaries in parts of India. An ‘inner line’ permit was evolved to keep out most foreigners from North-eastern India, and this—maybe quite unintentionally—took its toll on the expatriate planters who were such a quaint fixture of North Bengal and Assam. Along with draconian foreign exchange controls that were a feature of the Congress Party’s ‘socialism’, the message was clear: foreigners were not welcome to make India their place of livelihood.
This No Entry principle even rubbed off on tourism. Until two decades ago, securing a tourist visa for India involved filling cumbersome forms, providing needless documentation, negotiating officious clerks in India’s overseas missions and, finally, providing explanations to uncomprehending policemen manning the immigration desks. India was a democracy but a foreigner from the West could be forgiven for imagining that he had landed in a country behind the Iron Curtain.
What changed attitudes significantly was the sudden realisation that the ‘brain drain’ and a demand for cheap labour in West Asia had created a community of non-resident Indians, many of whom had expediently abandoned their Indian passports for the protection of either Her Majesty’s Government or the US President. The NRI’s were lavishly courted for their hard currency and their ability to offer some relief to a fortunate few in a shortage economy. This recognition of the NRI’s strategic worth in turn fuelled a demand for dual nationality—a feature of countries such as Israel, South Africa, Pakistan and Afghanistan.
The idea of Indians having divided allegiance, however, proved unacceptable and a typically Indian halfway house solution was found in the form of long-term or even lifelong visas: the People of Indian Origin cards and Overseas Citizen of India status. In other words, officialdom found a way of catering to their ‘desi’ brethren without, at the same time, lowering the guard against the ‘real’ foreigners.
The distinction between the favoured foreigner who enjoyed all rights of an Indian citizen—except the right to vote and run for public office—and the non-privileged foreigner—who was never given a right to permanent domicile—was crafted on purely racial grounds. A person of Indian origin from, say, one of the Caribbean countries, can claim OCI status if he demonstrates that a grandparent (or even great-grandparent) was born in undivided India. However, this privilege will not be granted to, say, a ‘gora aadmi’ who may be able to demonstrate equally formidable links to India. The similarities with Israel’s controversial ‘right of return’ policy for all Jews, are striking.
Nor have globalisation and the need for international expertise made a dent in attitudes. India is always fond of invoking the principle of reciprocity but this is eyewash. A foreigner with legitimate investments or profession in India can at best be given a five-year right to stay after which he must return to his country of origin and re-apply. There is nothing akin to Britain permanent resident status or the US’s green card. To my mind this is iniquitous.
This institutionalised wariness of the non-desi foreigner could have been dismissed as a minor irritant till the end of the century. However, as the country proceeds on its Make in India initiative, created substantially on foreign direct investment, there is a compelling need to give more and more talented or high net-worth individuals something of a stake in the country. India needs to make those who are contributing to India’s development and paying their taxes in India feel wanted. A visa status doesn’t automatically ensure hospitable living but at least it frees individuals from the harassment of petty officials.
Till Independence, India attracted a lot of unlikely talent from across the world. These included Jewish refugees from Europe, exiled Russians and even communities from China, Afghanistan and Central Asia. There were also the Anglo-Indians and Britons whose connections with India went back to the 18th century. These communities are sharply diminished today, not least because India went through a very bad patch for the first four decades after Independence.
The situation today is different. Despite the unhealthy air of our cities—a big deterrent to growth—India is fast turning into a land that offers opportunities that are often lacking in countries nominally more advanced. These opportunities are not merely confined to the investors. India needs to import skill sets in large areas ranging from education, health services, entertainment, publishing, hospitality and even construction. Maybe we still need to exercise a measure of political caution—recall the David Headley case, not to mention the hiccups caused by illegal immigration into eastern India—but if India is to make an international mark, it will always need to replenish home grown expertise with targeted import of skilled manpower. This policy must go beyond the ghar wyapsi for overseas Indians. An enlightened immigration policy is a skills multiplier.
More than just being a statement of intent, there has to be a mindset change in officialdom. The idea that national security is guaranteed by sealing the country—the same principle is followed in VIP security—still defines the Home Ministry. It has to be modified with a realisation that the route the country has chosen for its development necessitates the opening of doors and windows. With his innate pragmatism that easily subsumes doctrinaire nationalism, Modi has the ability to effect this liberalisation of human capital.
The Telegraph, January 1, 2016