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Leaving Mecca

The marooned Indian minority finally wins a passport to Britain

Leaving Mecca

THE Queen's profile is no longer on newly minted Hong Kong banknotes and stamps, her picture has been removed from most public spaces and the word 'Royal' has long been dropped from the title of the Jockey Club, but as British sovereignty over Hong Kong draws to a close, as many as 8,000 South Asians are becoming even more British.

When Hong Kong becomes a Special Administrative Region (SAR) of China at midnight on June 30, over 3.5 million people will have their nationality redefined. The vast majority who are ethnic Chinese will become Chinese citizens of the SAR. Others, born and raised in Hong Kong for generations, were threatened with statelessness till recently.

But, on February 4, as the British Parliament gave its assent to a bill pending since November, an estimated 5,000-8,000 ethnic minorities, mostly of Indian descent, won the right to a British passport. Insecure ever since the signing of the Sino-British Joint Declaration 13 years ago, they gained their victory after intense international lobbying, initiated by the Indian Resources Group (IRG) in Hong Kong.

Most passports are a double promise, entailing right of abode and protection abroad. In the improvised atmosphere of post-colonial politics, the British government managed to halve the promise, offering only colonials consular protection. In the face of Beijing's policy of offering citizenship only to ethnic Chinese, these second class passports are a Faustian contract, mandating travel because the bearer has nowhere to call home.

It was the final impasse of Britain's long post-imperial retreat. Stateless Indians in Hong Kong had right of abode in Hong Kong without Chinese citizenship, and British citizenship without right of abode. Many who were born with full Indian passports had them replaced with BN(O) passports—British National (Overseas) (see box). These passports, and their close counterparts the BDTC (British Dependent Territory Citizen), which expire on June 30, were merely travel documents, without the right of abode in the UK. Without Chinese assurances that foreign nationals will be able to stay back after the handover, the position of ethnic minorities was highly uncertain.

THAT Britain had dilly dallied on the issue for so long indicates an unwillingness to claim colonials as her own. Many with BN(O) or BDTC passports speak of the scorn they receive upon trying to enter Britain. They are grilled at immigration, asked when they will leave the country and to prove that they are not out to steal jobs. Kavita Dashwani, a writer for the South China Morning Post who agitated publicly for passports, writes that she often feels like "nothing more than a coloured opportunist".

"The BN(O) passport is meaningless," says Ravi Gidumal, IRG director, as he sits in his bustling import-export office, amidst a display of tea tins with Chinese decorations, holiday biscuit tins in bright colors, and a blue and green World Globe penny bank. Gidumal, who spearheaded the 'British National of Nowhere' campaign, belongs to a family that has been in Hong Kong under the British flag for generations and which has built a thriving business importing crystal and china to Hong Kong while exporting Chinese-made decorative tins.  

Indians have been a part of the Hong Kong landscape since the beginning of the territory's British era. About 2,000 Indian troops were present when Captain Charles Elliot first raised the Union Jack on Hong Kong Island in 1898. Later, many served in the garrison. Others were Parsi merchants, whose businesses and trading helped spur Hong Kong toward its position today as the Mecca of capitalist culture. 

Statistically, the ethnic minorities are insignificant, amounting to no more than 8,000. But the importance of Indians to Hong Kong is disproportionate to their number: though less than four-hundredth of the population, they generate fully one-tenth of the territory's export trade.

After the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen, the issue of nationality was foremost on the minds of Hong Kongers. Even those entitled to SAR Chinese passports worried about a future under Chinese rule. While, under the British Nationality Selection Scheme, 50,000 concessionary passports were offered to those Hong Kong families with the income to acquire them, many who actually applied were rejected and Britain offered no other options. Consequently Hong Kong went though a brain-drain, as many people relocated to Canada or the US to secure foreign passports as a form of insurance.

For some, however, business and long-held ties to the community were compelling reasons to stay. Many have never  known India as anything more than a historical homeland. Families and loved ones are in Hong Kong. And this is where they grew up. India is a place they came from once, long ago. Hong Kong is home.

Britain was faced with an unprecedented dilemma: Hong Kong is not gaining independence as so much of the former empire had. It is changing sovereignty. A signatory to the UN 1961 Convention on the Reduction of Statelessness, Britain is morally obliged to abide by the document that stipulates that no person shall become stateless as a result of transfer of territory.

Moreover, Hong Kong's ethnic Indians had grounds to show that their 'nowhere' status was a result of their race. Since the Chinese were determining national identity by ethnicity, so too was Britain by its unwillingness to act on the issue.

To the ethnic Indian minorities, remaining in Hong Kong without promises from Britain meant risking statelessness and facing the fact that no one would claim them should trouble begin. Spurred by this insecurity, the IRG mounted a successful campaign to change the heart and mind of the once great imperial power.

The IRG is a fairy tale of minority lobbying efforts making good. With the support of the Hong Kong Legislative Council, the IRG worked for years to gain the public eye. Through fund-raising efforts, canvassing via strategic influential contacts, and a crash course in international law, the IRG gained the support of Governor Chris Patten. Ultimately, even the Queen added her voice to the chorus. But till recently, the then home secretary Michael Howard, the one man with the power to change their fate, would not budge on the issue.

In an exchange that has become symbolic of Britain's stalling on the issue, former prime minister John Major said they would be granted permission to settle in the UK "in the unlikely event" that they were to come under threat in Hong Kong. Sir Patrick Cormack urged that if Major "could go so far, why can't he go one step further, which would give real comfort to the people of Hong Kong?" Erstwhile foreign minister W. Rifkind replied that he believed they already had that comfort. A statement that was frequently quoted with derision.

Months before a general election, offering passports to some 5,000-8,000 minorities could have been an unpopular move for the Tory government. However, both parties supported the minorities and royal encouragement made the move less explosive on the domestic front.

Ultimately, it may have been Britain's international profile that tipped the scales. Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, Britain has the right to monitor Hong Kong for years after the handover. The world will follow Britain's lead as the only country which, by treaty, has legal claim to the watchdog position vis-a-vis another. If Britain were to neglect the ethnic minorities, any future accusation by her against the Chinese would ring hollow. Moreover, the increasingly affluent Indian economy is too important for Britain to risk trade relations by placing ethnic Indians at international risk. According to Roderick Broadhurst, associate professor of Sociology, University of Hong Kong, China too would be unlikely to turn against the Indians. "With the Indian economy booming, I think it is more likely that China will value (Indians in the territory). I don't think they are going to waste the trading opportunities offered by India over this issue." But as of now, China has given no such comforting trade-driven signals.

When the international media descends on Hong Kong in June to witness the end of the British Empire, the story of the stateless Indians could have been easily exploited. It is the tale of an unabashedly racist and unpredictable government taking over from the coy democratic rhetoric of civis Britannicus sum. Britain's reputation would have been irreparably tarnished and the 8,000 citizens without a State would have been emblems for those who fall through the cracks when governments treat colonies and territories like so many chess pieces.

As things stand, Hong Kong's stateless Indians have won a British home, but their allegiance, as it has been for generations, is to Hong Kong. Asked what he would have done if the British hadn't come through at the eleventh hour, Ravi Gidumal replies: "Gone stateless, I guess."

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