Asia-Pacific, Headlines

HONG KONG: Indians in Limbo as 1997 Hand-over Date Draws Nearer

Yojana Sharma

HONG KONG, Feb 12 1996 (IPS) - Several thousand ethnic Indians are getting the jitters as the hand-over of the British Colony of Hong Kong to Chinese rule in June 1997 draws nearer.

Many of them came to Hong Kong as traders, policemen and civil servants more than a generation ago and when India was still a British Colony.

They hold Hong Kong British passports and are worried they will become virtually stateless come the hand-over because the Hong Kong British passport does not grant the right to live in Britain.

Of the 20,000 ethnic Indians currently in Hong Kong, according to immigration department figures, some two to three thousand are thought to be in a situation where they cannot claim any other nationality.

“Most of us were born and raised in Hong Kong and don’t have an Indian passport,” says Mohan Chugani, a garment trader and member of the Indian Resources Group — a lobby group of influential Indians pressing Britain for British passports.

“We have been told by the British authorities that granting British passports is not an administrative decision. It has to go through (the British) parliament and that will not be easy,” said Chugani.

The resignation last month from the government of Haider Barma, Hong Kong’s transport secretary and the Colony’s highest ranking ethnic Indian in the civil service sent shockwaves through the Indian community.

Barma, 51 who was born and raised in Hong Kong and speaks Chinese admitted his decision to step down was related to uncertainty over non-Chinese Hong Kong nationals after 1997. “One has got to be pragmatic,” he said. “I am not Chinese, one has to accept the reality of historical development.”

China has said that non-Chinese cannot serve at the highest levels of the civil service after 1997, but local Indians say Barma’s resignation goes deeper. “Clearly the Chinese have not been forthcoming with any assurances for the Indian community,” said one.

The lobby group says it needs at least minimal assurances from the Chinese government before the transfer of sovereignty, that the ethnic minorities can continue to invest and conduct their businesses here with the same rights and privileges as Chinese nationals.

At the same time, they want assurances as well from Britain.

Ashok Sakhrani, a lawyer with the lobby group, says Britain has a moral duty to provide for their future. “But we believe the British and Hong Kong governments are attempting to wash their hands of responsibility for these British subjects.”

Despite the difficulties, the lobbyists show no signs of giving up their effort. Last month a petition was passed on to Hong Kong Governor Chris Patten and another approach will be made to the British authorities later this month.

There is one small ray of hope. The lobby group says it has the sympathy of Britain’s opposition Labour Party leaders.

But realistically the lobby group admits that passports for ethnic Indians in Hong Kong is unlikely to be the top of a new Labour government’s parliamentary agenda even in the event of the Opposition party winning general elections constitutionally due in Britain by next year.

“People here cannot wait till 1997. They need to make some kind of arrangement about their future now. Most have already done so,” said Chugani.

Many have already joined the hoards of Hong Kong Chinese seeking passports overseas through emigration — mainly to Canada, the United States and Australia. Some 62,000 Hong Kong people a year are leaving to acquire passports overseas.

“Most others, particularly the business community, will look elsewhere in Asia such as the Philippines and Singapore,” says Chugani. “If you invest a lot of money in these countries they will grant residence.”

Others are hedging their bets by illegally taking out two passports. They may need their Hong Kong passports to continue living and working in Hong Kong after the hand-over, but if things should go wrong after 1997, they can fall back on their Indian nationality.

But a spokesman for the Indian Commission here warned: “Dual nationality is against the Indian constitution. If the Indian authorities found out, we would just ask them make up their mind and surrender one of the passports,” he said.

Meanwhile some say the Indian government has not done enough to bring up the issue wherever possible with Britain.

New Delhi says the ball is firmly in the British court and Indian officials tend to become quite defensive when asked what measures the Indian government is taking to help the Hong Kong Indians find a home.

“We would help them if they ask us for help, but many of them do not want to settle in India,” notes one Indian diplomat.

“It is a very complex issue,” he adds. “We have to see first to what extent Britain will help these people, and to what extent China will help them as well as to what extent India can help them. Some may not bother asking us for passports.”

The diplomat said the Indian government had stressed to London several years ago that the matter of Indians holding Hong Kong British passports and who may become stateless after 1997, should be resolved before the hand-over. But he admitted that whether or not Britain would fulfill that obligation was an unknown factor.

“No one really knows what will happen until June 1997,” he said.

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