As It Happens

Writer stripped of Indian citizenship says PM trying to 'make an example' of him

Aatish Taseer says the Indian government has cut him off from his home and his family to punish him for writing an article that was critical of the prime minister.

'I'm suddenly cut off from the only family I've ever had,' Aatish Taseer says

Author Aatish Taseer poses for a profile shoot at his house on Oct. 8, 2014, in New Delhi, India. He was stripped of his Indian citizenship this month after writing an article critical of India's prime minister. (Raj K. Raj/Hindustan Times/Getty Images)
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Aatish Taseer says the Indian government has cut him off from his home and his family to punish him for writing an article that was critical of the prime minister.

The British-born author and journalist learned earlier this month that India had removed his Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) status, which allows foreigners of Indian ancestry to visit, work and live in the country indefinitely. 

India's Home Ministry cited his late father's Pakistani citizenship for the decision, but Taseer says it's because of his controversial Time magazine feature about Prime Minister Narendra Modi and his Hindu nationalist Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP).

"They were really trying to make an example of me," Taseer, 38, told As It Happens host Carol Off. "With my mother turning 70 next year and my grandmother 90, I'm suddenly cut off from the only family I've ever had."

He officially surrendered his overseas citizenship to the consulate general of India on Monday in New York,  where he currently resides. 

An estranged Pakistani father 

Taseer was born in England but raised in India from the ages of two to 18, and has lived there on and off throughout his adulthood. 

He was raised by a single mother, Indian columnist Tavleen Singh. It wasn't until he was 21 that he connected with his estranged father Salman Taseer, a Pakistani politician who was assassinated in 2011 for his opposition to the country's blasphemy laws.

He wrote about the experience in his 2009 book Stranger to History.

India does not grant OCIs to individuals who are or whose ancestors were citizens of Pakistan or Bangladesh, and it accused Taseer of trying to conceal his father's nationality. It also does not allow dual citizenship.

Because of this, he'll likely also be blacklisted from applying for a visitor's visa, he said. 

"If was trying to conceal the fact that my father was Pakistani, I would not have been writing books and articles," Taseer said.

"Everyone has known this fact, including the senior leadership of the BJP, and it's never mattered until now."

Aatish Taseer was raised in India by his mother, Indian columnist Tavleen Singh, who had sole custody of him. (Submitted by Aatish Taseer)

In fact, he says it only became a problem after his Time article came out on May 9.

The article was written during the election that returned Modi to power, and explores the prime minister's staunch Hindu nationalism. 

But Taseer says it was the cover — an illustration of Modi's face paired with the words "Divider In Chief" — that sparked a firestorm among BJP members and supporters.

"It had just this absolutely kind of nuclear effect, and Modi supporters were trolling me heavily. They were vandalizing my Wikipedia page. They were doing all sorts of stuff on social media. There were threats," he said.  

"They went completely kind of bananas over this, and since then there's been a concerted attack against me and this relabelling me as a Pakistani."

The backlash played out on social media, and so too did the revocation of his citizenship. A Home Ministry spokesperson informed him about it in a Nov. 7 tweet. 

In another tweet, the home ministry accused Taseer of not asserting his right to appeal, which he denies.

Taseer says his case is just one of many troubling developments in his home country, citing a citizenship crackdown in Assam, a proposed immigration bill that would make it easier for non-Muslim immigrants to be granted Indian nationality, and the stripped autonomy of the Muslim-majority region of Kashmir and Jammu.

"Being of mixed background, I was always in a position to see Pakistan as a very sort of worrying example of what could happen when religion and politics took hold in a sort of toxic way. And India always stood out to me as a place of freedom, of robust democracy, of progressive liberal society and a society that always embraced diversity," he said.

"So to see India start to turn in similar ways is very, very upsetting to me."

Support from writers, activists — and his grandmother

More than 250 writers, journalists, artists and activists — including Salman Rushdie, Margaret Atwood and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie — have written an open letter to Modi defending Taseer.

"We are extremely concerned that Taseer appears to have been targeted for an extremely personal form of retaliation due to his writing and reporting that has been critical of the Indian government," reads the letter, which was posted online by PEN International, a press advocacy organization.

"Denying access to the country to writers of both foreign and Indian origin casts a chill on public discourse; it flies in the face of India's traditions of free and open debate and respect for a diversity of views, and weakens its credentials as a strong and thriving democracy."

India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaks with the media on the opening day of the parliament session in New Delhi on June 17. (Adnan Abidi/Reuters)

Reporters Without Borders, the Committee to Protect Journalists and Amnesty International have also criticized the government's decision. 

But Taseer says this will make no difference.

"This government is really on the path of illiberal democracy:" he said. "The more people from the sort of international community or from liberal quarters try to speak out, the more the government's resolve seems to kind of harden."

  • Watch: Aatish Taseer's grandmother pleads on his behalf:
Writer Aatish Taseer's 90-year-old grandmother Amarjit Singh says she raised him as an Indian and he should be allowed to come home to visit her. 0:31

One his most ardent supporters, though, stands out from the rest.

His 90-year-old grandmother Amarjit Singh, a self-described Modi follower, made a passionate plea for Taseer in a video addressed to the government.

"I have brought Aatish up as an Indian, which he is," she says in the clip. "I miss him very much and I would like him to come home."


Written by Sheena Goodyear with files from Reuters. Interview produced by Morgan Passi. 

Clarifications

  • This story has been updated to include the fact that India does not allow dual citizenship.
    Nov 19, 2019 12:02 PM ET

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