All India Football Federation ("AIFF") formed a task force constituted by the AIFF President Mr. Kalyan Choubey on August 14th, 2023, to conduct a feasibility study of allowing PIOs and OCI to play in the country's national teams. The task force will initially evaluate the PIO & OCI footballers playing at a higher level and the status of youth players, create a database and submit a report in order to find best possible ways to use such players to take Indian football forward. This article explores the legal challenges that present itself when considering PIO/OCI's ability to represent team India.

Persons of Indian Origin or PIO are natural persons who are foreign nationals holding citizenship of foreign countries except Pakistan, Afghanistan, Bangladesh, China, Iran, Bhutan, Sri Lanka and Nepal, having connections to India through birth, descent, marriage, or a history of residence in India. Precisely, a person who at any time since birth has held an Indian passport or who or either of whose parents/ grandparents/ great grandparents was born and permanently residing in India as defined in Government of India Act, 1935 and other territories that became part of India thereafter provided neither was at any time a citizen of any of the aforesaid countries ( as referred above); or who is a spouse of a citizen of India or a PIO.

On the other hand, OCI Card holders are foreign citizens who have been granted a form of permanent residency in India. This status provides them with several benefits, including the ability to work, study, and live in India without requiring a visa. OCI holders also have some of the same rights as Indian citizens, such as the ability to purchase property in India and apply for certain government jobs. However, OCI holders are not considered Indian citizens and do not have the right to vote or hold public office in India.

The Diaspora policy of India has seen a sporadic shift since the commencement of the Citizenship Act, 1955. The 4 main criteria on the basis of which citizenship is granted in India under the Citizenship Act, 1955 are:

  1. Citizenship by Birth [Section 3];
  2. Citizenship by Descent [Section 4];
  3. Citizenship by Registration [Section 5];
  4. Citizenship by Naturalization [Section 6].

The phenomenon of dual citizenship is seen by policymakers, as a possibility that needs to be negotiated, ranging from simple pragmatic tolerance to active engagement thus far. Introduction of Persons of Indian Origin (PIO) card and Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) schemes came much later in the years 1999 and 2005 respectively as a result of the long-standing demand of the overseas Indian community for recognition of their identity. Both the schemes serve as a cornerstone of India's Diaspora policy and are instruments to facilitate India's engagement with its overseas community.

This article highlights the implementation constraints of the PIO and OCI schemes such as the one sought to be introduced by the AIFF, in line with the right to participation in sports and games as a part of 'right to education', representation as a PIO and OCI cardholder in international games and the measures adopted by the current All India Football Federation under the leadership of Mr. Kalyan Choubey to include PIO and OCI cardholders to play for the country.

The PIO Scheme which was initially introduced in the year 1999 which later merged with the OCI scheme in 2015 in order to grant a life-long visa to persons of Indian origin through a process which is more user- friendly, quick and simple.

Rights enjoyed by PIO / OCI Cardholders

The persons subscribing to the said schemes are only granted limited rights. The rights granted pertain to the following:

  • The right to live and work in India indefinitely.
  • The right to own property in India.
  • The right to travel to India without a visa.
  • The right to register with the local police station for a stay exceeding 180 days.
  • The right to avail of most of the benefits available to Indian citizens,such as educational concessions and medical facilities.

It's important to note that the OCI card does not grant Indian citizenship or voting rights.

Judicial evolution of the status of PIOs and OCIs in international games

An average individual is not conscious of the fact as to how valuable this recognition by the state is critical for him, until he loses it or tries to exercise the rights available to him under these schemes. The concept of citizenship arose due to its reinforcement by the aliens, denizens (aliens admitted to rights of citizenship), refugees and unauthorised residents or migrants.

In the recent past, several instances occurred where inclusion of PIOs and OCIs holders to play for India was discussed in the positive light.

Sohrab Singh Gill v. Union of India1

One of the many instances was in 2010 when the division bench of the Punjab and Haryana High Court held that the Overseas Citizens of India should be accorded the same status as provided to NRIs for representing India in international sports events. This decision came after a shotgun shooter Mr. Sohrab Singh Gill, son of the then Punjab Director-General of Police, PS Gill, born in the United States but returned to India at the age of one, requested the Hon'ble Court to allow him to represent India. It was noted by the Court that he was granted the OCI status on April 4, 2007, and had also represented India in the junior world events and won 2 medals at the time at the Asian Championships in Kuwait in 2007.

On 26th December 2008, the Sports Ministry passed an order granting access to play for India at international events only to the players who were Indian citizens. By virtue of this policy Mr. Sohrab Gill no longer possessed the eligibility to participate in any international events on behalf of India as he was not an Indian citizen and also did not hold the country's passport. However, the said policy did not set any bars for NRIs and hence the Court could arrive at a decision that since an NRI was permitted to participate in sports events for India and facilities available to NRIs had also been granted to OCIs by the April 2005 notification, Gill could not be denied the right to participate, which overturned the Policy as an exception to Mr. Gill.

Emphasis was laid on the expression "education" to include 'sports and physical education' as a part of it. Reliance was placed on the Delhi High Court's definition of education in Ajay Jadeja vs. Union of India,2 which held that "modern education policies regard sports as an essential component of good education." The same view was also taken by the Hon'ble Supreme Court in Zee telefilms Ltd. vs. Union of India3.

Karm Kumar vs. Union of India & Ors.4

Later in the same year, Mr. Karm Kumar, a junior squash player, who holds a British passport, challenged the Squash Racket Federation of India's (SRFI) decision to restrict therepresentation of the country only to Indian citizens before the Delhi High Court. The Hon'ble High Court directed the Government to review the matter of participation of foreign nationals of Indian origin in the national teams and bring out a uniform national policy in the best interest of sports in the country.

In pursuance to such direction, the Government consulted the Indian Olympic Association ("IOA") and the recognized National Sports Federations ("NSFs") and came to a conclusion as iterated below:

"Based on this consultation, an overwhelming view has emerged that the best interest of Indian Sports would be served by ensuring that players who are Indian citizens only represent the country in the National teams. This would ensure that the limited resources available are invested optimally in building world class athletes. This would also provide the opportunity of giving international exposure and training to deserving local talent, which would further improve them to world class performance levels. Finally, it would serve the long-term interests of the country to emerge as a front runner in the field of sports. In view of the above, it has been decided that, henceforth only players who are citizens of India would be entitled to receive government support for representing the country in the national teams. Further, the above policy decision would also be applicable in the consideration of proposals for the participation of the national teams in international sports events."

Upholding such decision and the Centre's Policy of 2008 of not allowing PIOs holding foreign passport to represent India in an international sporting event, Justice S Murlidhar held in this judgment that as long as the Centre does not recognise dual citizenship in all aspects, People of Indian Origin (PIO) and Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) cannot represent India in international sports events.

Amaya Agarwal & Anr. Vs. All India Chess Federation & Ors.5

In another recent instance, a father of two minor girls ran from pillar to post seeking equal opportunity to participate in an international chess tournament. In this case, it was contended that the denial of participation of OCI in International chess tournaments representing India, is completely discriminatory, arbitrary, unlawful and in violation of the rights granted to the OCI under Section 7B of the Citizenship Act, 1955 read with the Constitution of India.

Here, the Petitioners were two minor British nationals with an OCI card, and their father is an Indian national and the mother is a British national. The Plea sought quashing of the Policy of the Government of India issued by the Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports (MYAS) 2008 and 2009 by which the OCI Card Holders have been restrained from participating and representing India in international sports events.

The plea filed by the Petitioners argued that the 2021 Government of India (GOI) notification has unfairly revoked a key benefit they previously enjoyed. 2005 GOI Notification granted OCI cardholdersthe rights in parity with Non-Resident Indians (NRIs)in terms of accessingall facilities available in economic, financial, and educational fields.

Despite their talent and Indian roots, the two young OCI athletes were denied the chance to represent their home country in international chess. While upholding the current policy, the Court provided the petitioners with a potential avenue for future legal redress and reconsideration of the exclusionary policy through Article 32 by directing them to first approach the High Court of appropriate jurisdiction before seeking recourse from the Supreme Court. Nonetheless, the path for OCI athletes remains uncertain, prompting a call for a more inclusive approach that allows talent to flourish regardless of passport colour.

Ms. Raquel Shefali Fernandez vs. Equestrian federation of India & Anr.6

Ms. Raquel Shefali Fernandez is a Belgian citizen who is an OCI cardholder.Her father is an Indian citizen, and her mother is Belgian.She filed a writ petition against the Equestrian Federation of India (EFI) regarding the participation of OCI card holders in JNEC 2020-21.

Raquel argued in her petition that the EFI's policy violated her right to equality and opportunity, enshrined in the Indian Constitution. She also highlighted the limitations of solely relying on having a passport, as a determining factor for national representation, especially in today's increasingly diverse and interconnected world.

The Delhi High Court, acknowledging the complexities of the case, did not issue a definitive ruling, but directed the EFI to re-examine its eligibility criteria and consider alternative pathways for talented OCI athletes. The High Court was of the opinion that the athlete shall be permitted to participate in the National Championship as a HC entry, only for the reason that she is a minor. Had the petitioner been a major such a relief would not have been available for her. This decision opened a crucial window for dialogue and potential policy reform, paving the way for a more inclusive future for equestrian sports in India.

India towards acceptance of Bosman and kolpak Nationality

Kevin Pietersen, a former England cricket team captain, was born in South Africa to an English mother and a South African father of English descent. In 2004, he was granted indefinite leave to remain in the United Kingdom, which allowed him to play for the English cricket team. However, in 2010, he was involved in a controversial "Bosman nationality" case, which raised questions about his eligibility to play for England.

The case revolved around Pietersen's status as a "Kolpak" player. Under the Kolpak ruling of the European Court of Justice citizens of countries that have signed the Cotonou Agreement with the European Union are allowed to play cricket, in England as non-overseas players, without having to obtain a work permit. Pietersen had signed a contract with the Indian Premier League (IPL) that made him a "foreign" player and, as a result, his status as a Kolpak player was in question. The England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) conducted an investigation into Pietersen's eligibility and concluded that he was still eligible to play for England. However, this decision was controversial and led to accusations that Pietersen was exploiting a loophole in the system. There were also concerns that Pietersen's case could set a precedent that would allow other non-English players to play for England under the Kolpak ruling. However, Pietersen continued to play for England until 2014, when he was dropped from the team following a series of disagreements with team management. Pietersen has since retired from international cricket and is now a commentator and pundit.

In cricket, the Indian Premier League (IPL) introduced a player retention policy in 2011 that allowed franchises to retain a limited number of players from their previous season's squad, which helped to stabilize team rosters and reduce the frequency of player transfers. This policy was partly influenced by the Bosman ruling, as it provided a way for franchises to retain their star players without having to negotiate new contracts every season. Besides that, it can also retain four overseas players as Impact Players. Similarly, in an Indian Super League (ISL) match, a club can field a maximum of four overseas players at any time, including one Asian quota player under the overseas quota of players.

In a similar vein, the European Court of Justice (ECJ) in its streak of judgements decided on the aspect of "homegrown players" in the case of UL and SA Royal Antwerp Football Club v. Union royale belge des sociétés de football association ASBL (URBSFA)7, also commonly used as a jargon in football. In 2005, UEFA adopted rules stipulating that professional football clubs participating in its international interclub football competitions must include a maximum number of 25 players on the match sheet, of whom a minimum of 8 must be "home-grown players", defined as players who, regardless of their nationality, have been trained by their club or by a club affiliated to the same national football association for at least three years. Out of 8 players, at least 4 must have been trained by the club which lists them.

After much deliberation, the European Court of Justice ruled that UEFA and Belgian football rules requiring a minimum number of "home-grown players" in teams likely violate EU law. These rules restrict player recruitment based on nationality or training location, potentially harming competition and EU workers' freedom of movement. While promoting youth development is a valid goal, the court found these specific rules might not effectively achieve it and could disproportionately disadvantage foreign players. Ultimately, the referring court must decide if these rules stand based on these clarifications and a careful evaluation of the evidence presented. More precisely, the Court observes that the rules on 'home-grown players' fall within the scope of Articles 45 and 101 TFEU. It further points out that the pursuit of a sport constitutes an economic activity, it comes under the provisions of EU law that are applicable to that activity, with the exception of certain specific rules adopted exclusively for non-economic reasons and for sport per se.

With renewed impetus, it is important to reinvigorate the above decision in the Indian scenario. Mr. Igor Stimac, a Croatian football coach presently the head coach of the Indian football team has been one of the proponents after Stephen Constantine, Bob Houghton, and Wim Koevermans, all erstwhile coaches of the Indian football team who has been advocating for allowing PIO footballers to play for India. While the inflow of the PIOs and OCIs have been blazing the trail, however, until now, no law or policy has been so formulated to recognise the representation of India by PIO and OCI holders at the international sporting events.

Overall, while the Bosman ruling may have had a broader influence on the global sports industry, it does not have any direct relevance to the eligibility of PIO and OCI holders to play for India. The Pietersen Bosman nationality case highlighted the complex nature of eligibility rules in international cricket and raised questions about the integrity of the sport. While Pietersen was ultimately allowed to play for England, his case has led to a greater scrutiny of eligibility criteria and a tightening of the rules to prevent similar situations from arising in the future.

Although the intent of the Centre to not allow dual citizenship is understood, it is time for the Centre to re-assess the eligibility criteria for sports. One of the main reasons for inclusion of the PIOs and OCIs to represent India in the international sporting events is to tap into the talent pool of the Indian diaspora, when India is looking to emerge as a sporting power. Many of these players have grown up playing in European, or American countries and have honed their skills in professional leagues around the world. Hence, these players can ply their trade for the nation and help India climb up the ladder at the international stage, while talent in India continues to develop.

The only way a PIO can play for India is by giving up their passports of the country of which they hold their citizenship of and further applying for Indian citizenship. For becoming an Indian citizen, one must be registered as an OCI (Overseas Citizen of India) for at least five years. They must also be residing in India for at least one out of those five years.

Some of the Sportspersons of Indian Origin are namely Brandon Fernandes, an Indian professional footballer, was born in Goa to a Goan mother and an English father of Indian origin; Sim Bhullar, a Canadian basketball player, was born in Canada to parents of Indian origin. He played for New Mexico State University and later became the first player of Indian descent to play in the National Basketball Association (NBA) when he signed with the Sacramento Kings in 2014; Omid Singh, who was raised in an Iranian household to an Indian father; Yan Dhanda, the Liverpool prodigy born to an English Mother and an Indian Punjabi father in Birmingham.

Beyond the Headlines

One was of the opinion that merely signing Europeans won't solve our problems which is reflected from the performances of Pakistan, Sri Lanka, China and others recruiting foreign players. There are several talented Indian players upon whom we must have faith. To which a Sri Lankan football fanatic replied saying "diaspora players have actually helped Pakistan and SL, those two teams are just bad because the local players are horrendous. But you can clearly see a positive impact once diaspora players have joined their respective countries."


The arena of Indian sports echoes with the whispers of untapped potential. Talented individuals holding PIO and OCI cards stand at the threshold, yearning to represent the nation on the global stage. However, their path is paved with legal hurdles and a complex tapestry of citizenship.

Furthermore, the rigid interpretation of citizenship overlooks the evolving nature of national identity. In today's globalized world, transnational communities and individuals with multiple affiliations are commonplace. Excluding PIOs and OCIs based solely on passport ownership risks overlooking a valuable talent pool and stifling the growth of Indian sports.

While on the one hand the recent push by the AIFF to reconsider the policy is a testament to this growing sentiment of their inclusion, on the other hand this poses a threat to the Indian born players who may likely be replaced by these experienced and privileged players in the key positions on the field, as the foreigners do in the ISL.

The debate, however, transcends mere legal technicalities. It touches upon the very notion of national identity and inclusivity. Should India's sporting landscape remain confined by the rigid boundaries of passport ownership, or should it embrace the diversity and talent within its diaspora? The same way the Hon'ble Prime Minister of India Mr. Narender Modi ji, is reaching out to the Indian diaspora situated abroad.

The answer lies in finding a middle ground, one that respects the principle of citizenship while acknowledging the unique position of PIOs and OCIs. Perhaps a dual-eligibility pathway, where individuals can compete for India after a certain period of residency or fulfilling specific criteria, could be explored.

Ultimately, the goal should be to foster a sporting environment where talent, not passport color, dictates the right to represent the nation. Only then can India truly harness the full potential of its athletes, both within and beyond its borders, and write a new chapter in its sporting legacy.


1 MANU/PH/0112/2010

2 95 (2002) DLT 14

3 (2005) 4 SCC 649

4 2010 SCC Online Del 2579

5 Writ Petition(s)(Civil) No(s).374/2023

6 (2023) 05 DEL CK 0026

7 Case C-680/21, Judgement of the Court (Grand Chamber) of 21 December 2023

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