There is a tussle – the battle between the visceral and the rational – when it comes to the question of belonging to a place; the document you possess might show that you have a ‘different’ identity – one where you belong to another place. The adopted homeland, where the convenience of the document overrides your informal and non-compulsory bond of loyalty with the actual homeland.
I thought of exploring this conundrum deeper. Why is there a visceral feeling of being ‘privileged’ to be Indian but not privileged to have an Indian passport?
July 2020 marked a decade of my being an immigrant, living many years between Singapore and the United States.
India Allows Visa-Free Access To Only 58 Countries
As an immigrant, immigration is not just a topic of interest, in fact, it precedes the basis of employment itself. Without the right immigration (the ability to secure an employment visa), you’re precluded from several jobs. As a millennial, our generation could say that back in the day, our grandparents' basic priorities on Maslow’s Hierarchical scale were simply ‘Roti Kapda, Makaan’ (food, clothing and shelter).
Our parents’ ‘boomer’ generation had a bit more – ‘Roti Kapda Makaan’ + savings and investments + education for kids – as the main weapon in the upward social mobility challenge. My generation, the millennials, have all of the above AND immigration concerns in the quest for better economic opportunity. And of course, a lot of the ability to live, work and travel depends on a tiny 125 × 88 mm booklet called the passport.
Globalisation may make it easier for data to travel across archaic borders in nanoseconds, yet the passport may preclude a lot of that travel.
In fact, the hierarchy of passport classifications is definitely a new ‘class’ system of sorts.
India presently ranks 84th, along with Mauritania and Tajikistan, in the Henley Passport Index Rankings of 2020, with visa-free access to only 58 countries.
India, of course, staunchly disallows its citizens from obtaining dual citizenship.
Even the United States, which has long seen itself, and to quote many, “as the greatest country on earth,” isn’t as averse to dual citizenship. Many Americans do possess a second nationality. America has been ‘America First’, long before Donald Trump. The mind bender here is that if the United States has long allowed its citizens to ‘share’ their personal identity as dual citizens with other countries, the elephant in the room is: why hasn’t India got on board?
Concerns In India Over Dual Citizenship
India is a brobdingnagian monstrosity in numbers. It’s hard enough that India has an abysmally small portion of taxpayers, more accurately honest taxpayers. Few countries can brag of not having tax evaders, and India has its fair share. There is legitimate concern that dual citizenship in India would allow many Indian nationals to either not declare taxes owed – under the ruse of paying taxes in their second country – or to find a convenient tax loophole through this second nationality.
But this creates other problems.
Given the voluminous population and the aspiration of the diaspora, the Indian cohort makes up one of the largest contingent of naturalised citizens overseas.
How The Indian Passport Continues To Be A ‘Hindrance’
Each year, several Indian citizens are confronted with that quandary – to adopt a different identity for the sake of economic and logistical conveniences, or to attach a grandiose but a personal sense of self-importance to a document, codifying one's roots to their ancestral home.
Now, at a time of rampant nationalism, but also globalisation, one would naturally say that the idea of nationhood and nationality is immaterial or should be insignificant. But unfortunately, the sacrosanctity of passports carries a lot more heft than just a mere identity card or a travelogue of visits.
There has been this innate sense of “Saare Jahaan Se Accha” for the Indian diaspora, and yet the passport continues to be a hindrance.
Malaysian Passport vs Indian Passport: Both Commonwealth Nations – Why Is Indian Passport Weaker?
Despite an emotional bond, the practicality of paying exorbitant visa fees, limiting economic opportunity through visa sponsorship and a lack of visa-free access, makes little sense for many to retain their Indian passport – no matter how much they may retain their ‘Indianness’.
I have come across precious little literature, if at all any, on if the Ministry of External Affairs (MEA) has been perturbed by the number of Indian nationals who naturalise.
While the MEA has often brought up easing visa restrictions for Indian nationals in the US and the UK through bilateral discourse, this is merely addressing the symptom and not the cause – the weakness of the passport.
In 2012, A Malaysian colleague began rhapsodising about his trip to the UK. I interrupted and asked about the visa procedure. I half-expected Malaysia, as a fellow emerging market like India, would have some of the same visa complications. “Visa”, he said, “no no, we are Commonwealth, we don’t need a visa”. I was both befuddled and annoyed. Firstly, if India doesn’t epitomise ‘Commonwealth’ for its near two century-long colonial rule, then very few countries merit the title of ‘Commonwealth’. And judging by the look of the Kohinoor diamonds, safely ensconced in the UK, along with other ‘loot’ taken from the subcontinent, India certainly put the ‘wealth’ in ‘Commonwealth’ –– ironically named, for there was nothing common about that wealth. But I digress!
Same Family, Different Visa Rigmaroles – When It Comes To The Passport
There is limited reason why India, being a Commonwealth country, doesn't get the same privileges as other Commonwealth countries.
In fact, my chagrin was further accentuated during a family holiday to Europe in 2014. It was the five of us. My parents would fly in from India, my sister and brother-in-law from the US, and myself from Singapore. The four of us were Indian nationals, my brother-in-law, an American national. Visa rigmaroles were not alien to us; we had been through the most tedious process before. However, my brother-in-law didn’t need a visa as an American citizen.
What left me more astounded was how my sister and brother-in-law, who live in the same American city, who share equally well-reputed identical professional credentials, similar strong educational backgrounds, were viewed differently, through merely the different emblem on this innocuous yet pertinently profound document – the passport.
My sister had to show three years of bank statements to prove stable finances, even purchase health insurance, while my brother-in-law, like all Americans and some other nationalities, could waltz in on a whim.
Of course, I understand the risks associated with a large country like India with an overflowing population across different economic spectrums. Some need the rigidity of immigration protection (in the case of young minors and domestic workers to prevent abduction), while others have been guilty of flouting their immigration status and overstaying their welcome. There is also the economic factor, of India being seen as a largely ‘developing nation’ with lower purchasing power parity. These are no doubt valid concerns.
World Must Realise It’s Offensive To ‘Homogenise’ 1.3 Bn People Through A Tiny Document – The Passport
To segue to a broader narrative, we often rave that India is far from being a homogeneous country in the cultural context. But it’s equally diverse in the economic and educational context, where several good samaritans need to jump through embarrassing and degrading visa palavers, simply to prove that they are in society’s good standing.
I’m not an immigration expert, but I can safely assume that the onus has to fall on both the Indian government to advocate for more global parity for a lot of its citizens, and for the world to realise that it is offensively egregious to homogenise 1.3 billion people through an archaic, tiny document.
Call it the lottery of life.
Born in any of the fifty states in the United States, you’re draped in the Bill of Rights, but today, try going the legal immigration route, after having obtained impeccable degrees in the country, acquired respectable jobs – and there is almost no pathway to getting a visa, let alone citizenship.
How We Managed To Create A New ‘Class System’ Through ‘Passport Hierarchies’
Presently, there is literally no way to recognise who is an American citizen and who isn’t, by simply staring at a passer-by on the street.
It’s far from the country, where a majority American demographic was once largely homogenised as Caucasian, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, English-speaking. It’s not even the English language or cultural familiarity or an accent that makes one ‘American’; what it brutally comes down to is whether you possess an American passport.
And while yes, this article isn’t meant to be an hagiography of the American passport which has significantly weakened, it is more about how in a world where we speak of egalitarianism, social justice, income inequality, abjuring a sense of colour privilege, we have managed to created a new ‘class system’.
One in which you are forced to play by a sense of inherent randomness, grotesque unfairness if you will, of immigration laws decided between countries long before your birth – and your ‘destiny’ in the form of your passport will decide how long you can live in a place, or how soon you must leave.
(Akshobh Giridharadas is based out of Washington D.C., and writes on diverse topics such as geopolitics, business, tech and sports. He is a two time TEDx and Toastmasters public speaker and a graduate from the Fletcher School of Law & Diplomacy. He tweets @Akshobh. This is an opinion piece. The views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)