Overseas Citizenship of South Asia

written by A. L. Hart Havens on July 15, 2021

The countries of South Asia and the Indian subcontinent are largely off the average westerner’s radar due to the lack of media coverage compared to China, Russia, and the Middle East. However, three countries in this region – India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh – incredibly combine to account for an entire 22.5% of the world’s population. And all three rank among the top 10 most populous countries, with India at #2 (1.38 billion), Pakistan at #5 (225 million), and Bangladesh at #8 (171 million).

The enormous potential for India and the region as a whole to emerge as an economic and geopolitical powerhouse on the world stage cannot be overlooked. However, in spite of the lucrative opportunities that citizenship in these countries could offer, discussions about the benefits of acquiring Indian, Pakistani, or Bangladeshi citizenship are practically nonexistent.

This article examines the peculiar concept of overseas citizenship in the South Asia region and explores a number of issues that could make the acquisition of overseas or full citizenship of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh an appealing prospect, particularly for individuals who are eligible by way of family ties.

Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI)

In the face of India’s strict prohibition on dual citizenship, the Indian government introduced Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) status in 2005 in order to accommodate millions of people of Indian origin living overseas who sought to maintain civic ties to India but did not wish to renounce their other citizenship(s).

Despite the designation and the issuance of a passport showing Overseas Citizen of India on the cover, however, OCI does not confer any sort of citizenship at all. Rather, it is effectively a permanent residency permit available to some people of Indian origin who do not hold Indian citizenship. In contrast to the black passport issued to full Indian citizens, the passport issued to Indian overseas citizens is medium blue.

Individuals and descendants of individuals who currently hold or who have ever held Pakistani or Bangladeshi citizenship are prohibited from obtaining overseas Indian citizenship.

Although OCI was introduced with the aim of conferring many of the rights afforded to full citizens, the scope of these rights was curtailed in 2021 when OCI status was lowered from that of a non-resident Indian national to a foreign national.

Although OCI holders are still permitted to relocate to and seek gainful employment in India on an indefinite basis, they are ineligible to vote in elections or run for public office and they are subject to heavy restrictions on owning farmland, pursuing specific professions, and travelling to certain regions of India.

The new provisions are widely viewed to mark a major step backward by Indian diaspora organizations, which had celebrated the introduction of overseas citizenship in 2005 as what they hoped would be an important first step toward the eventual legalization of dual citizenship in India.

There are approximately six million holders of OCI passports across the world, including former Indian citizens who switched to overseas citizenship upon naturalizing in a different country.

The Pakistan Origin Card (POC)

Although the Pakistani government’s approach toward dual citizenship is also restrictive, its policy is unquestionably less strict than India’s. For example, Pakistani citizens are permitted to concurrently hold the citizenship of one of 21 approved countries – Australia, Bahrain, Belgium, Canada, Denmark, Egypt, Finland, France, Germany, Iceland, Ireland, Italy, Jordan, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Sweden, Switzerland, Syria, United Kingdom, United States. This list has slowly grown longer in recent years, and is reportedly set to soon include Luxembourg, Portugal, and the Czech Republic.

In order to enable and encourage the Pakistani diaspora to reconnect with their ancestral homeland, the Pakistani government enables qualifying non-citizen individuals of Pakistani origin to acquire a Pakistan Origin Card (POC). The POC is the best option available to Pakistani diaspora holding citizenship of an unapproved country who do not wish to renounce in order to acquire Pakistani citizenship.

Holders of the Pakistan Origin Card benefit from a multiple-entry visa, the right to live and work indefinitely in Pakistan, the option to open a bank account, and the right to buy and sell real estate in Pakistan. Restrictions apply to people of Pakistani origin who are citizens of India, Israel, or Taiwan or are married to citizens of those countries.

The Bangladesh No Visa Required Seal (NVR)

Similar to Pakistan’s approach toward dual citizenship, people of Bangladeshi origin may hold an additional citizenship if it is included in a list of 30 approved countries – United States, United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and the countries of Europe’s Schengen Area. Bangladeshis pursuing dual citizenship are required to apply for a certificate of permission from the government.

Many people of Bangladeshi origin holding citizenship of an unapproved country understandably do not wish to renounce in order to acquire Bangladeshi citizenship. However, most of these non-citizen individuals of Bangladeshi origin and their immediate family members qualify for the No Visa Required (NVR) program, which is effectively a multiple-entry visa to Bangladesh with no restrictions on the length of stay as long as the holder’s foreign passport remains unexpired.

It is notable that the NVR does not offer quite the same permanent residency benefits that are provided by the aforementioned Indian OCI and Pakistani POC. Furthermore, people of Bangladeshi origin who are citizens of India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan, Sri Lanka, and the Maldives are prohibited from acquiring NVR status.

While overseas citizens of India receive a passport booklet and overseas citizens of Pakistan a plastic ID card, overseas citizens of Bangladesh are issued a seal (or a sticker) that is affixed to a blank page of their foreign passport.

Poor Quality of Passports

Despite the enormous populations and promising economic potential of the South Asia region, the subpar quality of the national passports of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh is quite astounding. In fact, the passports of these three countries allow for some of the world’s worst mobility measured by international visa-free access.

This is clearly evidenced by the 2021 rankings of the world’s 199 passports from most powerful (#1) to least powerful (#199), which – without accounting for any of the covid-related international travel restrictions enacted across the world over the past 18 months – show India at #149, Pakistan at #196, and Bangladesh at #188.

The poor international mobility and heavy visa restrictions have understandably prompted large numbers of Indians, Pakistanis, and Bangladeshis to pursue second citizenship opportunities in other regions of the world, particularly the Latin American and Caribbean region.

Despite this unfavorable situation, however, these passports could certainly exhibit a considerable improvement in the medium term particularly in view of the gradual rise of India as a world power to be reckoned with.

Finally, the poor quality of South Asian passports at present should not lead people to erroneously assume a poor quality of the underlying citizenships. India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh are geographically far-removed from the US, EU, and NATO power centers, and may soon wield sufficient geopolitical clout – either independently or by way of alliances with China and/or Russia – to effectively resist the destructive taxation and social policies relentlessly projected onto the world by woke western governments.