Journalist's overseas Indian citizenship cancelled in alleged retaliation to his critical article on Modi

In what appears to be a retaliation, journalist and writer Aatish Taseer, who wrote a cover story critical of the Indian government in Time magazine earlier this year, has been threatened with revocation of OCI, a key citizenship document that would limit his ability to work and live in India., according to PEN America.

Taseer, author of most recently The Twice-Born: Life and Death on the Ganges, was born to Indian journalist Tavleen Singh and late Pakistani politician and businessman Salmaan Taseer. He divides his time between New York and New Delhi.

“However, on November 7, the Home Ministry announced in a series of tweets that Taseer had hidden information about his late father’s nationality and had failed to challenge their notice,” it said.

A few hours after the home ministry’s tweets, Taseer received an email from the Consulate General of India in New York informing him that the Government of India had cancelled his OCI card, effective immediately.

In a statement, PEN America said Nov. 7 that it was a worrying move by the Indian government to punish a reporter for coverage critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi.

In May this year, amid a contentious Indian election season, Taseer wrote a cover story for TIME, profiling Modi, which was headlined “India’s Divider in Chief.” That cover drew online harassment and an official complaint from India’s consul general to TIME magazine.

In September, he received notice that the Indian government intended to revoke his Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) documentation. The OCI allows foreign citizens of Indian heritage to live and work in India indefinitely.

Once granted, the OCI card can only be cancelled under limited circumstances whose narrow criteria have not been met in this case, PEN America said Nov. 7. If an individual’s card is canceled, they can also be placed on a blacklist preventing their future entry into India. Taseer responded to the notice but never received an official reply from the Home Ministry.

“However, on November 7, the Ministry announced in a series of tweets that Taseer had hidden information about his late father’s nationality and had failed to challenge their notice,” it said.

A few hours after the home ministry’s tweets, Taseer received an email from the Consulate General of India in New York informing him that the Government of India had cancelled his OCI card, effective immediately.

Taseer has disputed both claims.

“Harassing critical writers and journalists not just in India but globally is a disturbing new low for Modi’s government that’s already put Indian democracy on its heels,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of Free Expression at Risk Programs at PEN America in a statement.

“Revoking Aatish Taseer’s citizenship document — which would in effect also ban him from visiting his childhood home and seeing his mother and grandmother — is a cruelly personal and vindictive way to punish a journalist for their critical coverage,” Karlekar said.

“We call on the Indian government to cease their judicial harassment of Taseer immediately and allow him to keep his OCI card.”

According to PEN America, threats to free expression and political dissent in India have been building steadily in recent years. In its 2016 report Fearful Silence: The Chill on India’s Public Sphere, PEN America noted that the environment for free expression has deteriorated under the present government, with authorities regularly using legal cases and other regulatory mechanisms to curb dissenting views.

It said those who advocate for human rights or express unorthodox viewpoints are sometimes subject to arrest, prosecution, and other forms of legal intimidation, and recent cases of murders of leading journalists, thinkers, and writers, such as Govind Pansare, Narendra Dabholkar, MM Kalburgi, and Gauri Lankesh, have yet to be fully investigated or prosecuted.

In the Cover story in Time magazine in May this year, Taseer argued that to understand the deeper promptings of this enormous expression of franchise – not just politics, but the underlying cultural fissures – one needs to go back to the first season of the Modi story because only then “one can see why the advent of Modi is “at once an inevitability and a calamity for India.”

He said India offers a unique glimpse into “both the validity and the fantasy of populism” and “forces us to reckon with how in India, as well as in societies as far apart as Turkey and Brazil, Britain and the U.S., populism has given voice to a sense of grievance among majorities that is too widespread to be ignored, while at the same time bringing into being a world that is neither more just, nor more appealing.”

In an interview with The New Yorker in October, Nobel Laureate Amartya Sen said that when someone in India says something critical of the government on the phone with him, they say they would rather talk about it when meeting him personally and not on the phone because of fear that the conversation is being listened to.

“That is not a way to run a democracy. And it is also not a way of understanding what the majority wants,” Sen said, adding that today, everything is dominated by a hard-nosed, hard-Hindutva thinking. He said opposition to Hindutva politics would have grown more, if people were not afraid.

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