Hong Kong Indians left out in the cold

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 November, 2003, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 November, 2003, 12:00am


There are thousands of people of Indian origin in Hong Kong but none are eligible for the gift of dual citizenship being showered by Prime Minister Atal Behari Vajpayee's government on ethnic Indians in select countries.

Next week, India's Parliament will enact a dual citizenship law for the benefit of the Indian diaspora in the United States, Britain, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Finland, Ireland, the Netherlands, Italy, Greece, Switzerland, France, Sweden, Portugal, Cyprus and Israel.

Commentators say the dual citizenship law blatantly favours ethnic Indians from rich nations and deliberately excludes large communities in developing countries.

According to former communist MP and columnist Ashok Mitra, a growing number of Hindu expatriates in the US and western Europe make big political donations to Mr Vajpayee's Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and its extremist offshoots such as Vishwa Hindu Parishad - hence the preferential treatment. 'These cash-rich donors have formed a lobby group called Overseas Friends of the BJP - based in Washington - and extracted their pound of flesh,' Mr Mitra said.

The dual citizens - unlike foreigners - would be allowed to acquire unlimited property in India, make unrestricted investments, practise professions restricted to citizens and, if needed, reclaim their Indian nationality.

They will still be barred from voting, contesting elections, holding constitutional positions and joining the defence forces.

Among the 16 chosen countries, there is none from Asia, Africa or South America. Yet these three continents account for three-quarters of the Indian diaspora. No Muslim or Arab country figures on the list, although there are three million ethnic Indians in the oil-rich Gulf region who regularly repatriate badly needed foreign exchange to India.

Of the estimated 20 million people of Indian origin across the globe, only five million live in the 16 countries which have been shortlisted for the special privilege.

The other 15 million are scattered in the Southeast Asian region - including Hong Kong, where Indians have been around since Captain Charles Elliott raised the flag for the first time at Possession Point - Africa and the West Indies.

Tens of thousands of Indians were shipped during British colonial rule in the 18th and 19th centuries to countries such as Malaya and Burma, Trinidad and Tobago, Surinam, South Africa, Kenya, Mauritius and Fiji as indentured labour. But most were poor, illiterate people from backward regions such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

In contrast, migration to western European countries and Australia and New Zealand picked up only after India's independence in 1947. These immigrants were well-qualified professionals such as doctors, engineers and chartered accountants.

Over the decades, they and their descendants have risen to be numbered among the highest-earning and best-educated groups in their adopted countries. The average income of Americans of Indian origin is twice the US average. And the diaspora has an annual income twice the Malaysian GDP.

Analyst and author Praful Bidwai said: 'Because of their wealth, the BJP started wooing them long before it captured power in India. Many of them were drawn to the right-wing BJP's rabidly pro-Hindu agenda. They started hosting BJP leaders in New York and London and became regular contributors to the party's coffers.'

Reacting to the exclusion of South Africa from the list of 16 nations, Fatima Meer, African National Congress leader, said: 'India is only interested in those who earn in dollars and pounds in the west. This is the worst kind of apartheid.'

Mr Bidwai believes Israel's inclusion is not surprising. 'Today Israel is like a magnet for India because of their common anti-Muslim agenda. New Delhi is swooning over anything Israeli - including Israelis of Indian origin,' he said.

Mr Bidwai does not believe the new law will result in an investment windfall for cash-strapped India - the justification offered by senior Indian officials for introducing dual citizenship. Citing official figures, he said wealthy Indians who had become naturalised citizens of other countries accounted for as little as 4 per cent of direct foreign investment in India.

'The new law will come in handy for milking and fleecing India by a section of the diaspora without giving anything in return. It is the BJP's way of saying 'thank you',' Mr Bidwai said.