‘Expected reprisal for Modi article, but not a severing’: Writer Aatish Taseer on losing OCI status

Writer and journalist Aatish Taseer on Friday said it was hard not to feel that India’s withdrawal of his Overseas Citizen status was a punishment for an article he wrote in May that was critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. In an article in Time magazine on Friday, Taseer admitted that he had “expected a reprisal” for the article, “but not a severing”.

On Thursday night, Taseer was informed that his Overseas Citizen of India status had been cancelled and that he should turn his OCI card in to the Consulate General of India in New York, where he lives, in 15 days. A few hours earlier, the Ministry for Home Affairs had tweeted that Taseer had become “ineligible” to hold the status because he had “concealed the fact that his late father was of Pakistani origin” in his application.

The ministry also claimed that speculations that the decision was linked to Taseer’s controversial article were “complete misrepresentation and devoid of facts”. Taseer’s cover story in Time magazine in May had described Modi as India’s “divider in chief”.

Overseas Citizenship of India is an immigration status that allows foreigners of Indian origin to live and work in India indefinitely. This status is not available to applicants whose parents, grandparents or great-grandparents were Pakistani. Before the OCI scheme was launched in 2005, members of the diaspora could obtain Person of Indian Origin status.

Taseer was born in 1980 after his mother, Indian columnist Tavleen Singh, had a brief relationship with Pakistani politician Salman Taseer when they both lived in the United Kingdom. They were never married. Aatish Taseer is a British national.

‘I was Indian because I just was’

In his article on Friday, Taseer said India was his country and his relationship with India was so instinctive that there was never a need to articulate it. “I could say I was Indian because I had grown up there, because I knew its festivals and languages, and because all five of my books were steeped in its concerns and anxieties,” he wrote.

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“I was Indian because I just was,” Taseer wrote. “It was fundamental and a priori. It came before one’s reasons for why it was so. Now that it has been questioned in this letter from the Home Ministry, I felt an odd sense of pity – not for myself, but for my family in India.”

The writer said he may not be eligible even for a standard tourist visa for India now as he is accused of defrauding the government. “With my grandmother turning 90 next year – and my mother 70 – the government has cut me off from my country and family,” he said.

He claimed the government had “limited means” by which it could legally take away his overseas citizenship, “yet they have now acted on those means”. He said his legal status had never been questioned by the government until this instance – not even when he was living in India after he published a book in which he mentioned his parents’ brief relationship.

Taseer said his mother, journalist Tavleen Singh, had raised him on her own in Delhi and was always his sole legal guardian, and “the only parent I knew for most of my life”. “It was why I had always been viewed as Indian in India and why I had been granted an OCI,” he said.

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‘Symptomatic of a larger movement’

Taseer wrote that it was easy to see his situation as individual or unique, but “it is symptomatic of a much larger movement”. “The government that stripped me of my overseas citizenship had just stripped the state of Jammu and Kashmir of statehood, autonomy and basic human freedoms,” he wrote. “In the northeastern state of Assam, it was acting to strip 1.9 million people – the great majority Muslim – of citizenship, rendering them stateless.”

Taseer said that he was scheduled to travel to India from Greece just days after he received the government’s letter, but had to return to the United States as a lawyer felt he risked detention if he went ahead with his plans.

“As a journalist I have been in many fearful places in my life…but this was the first time I had thought of India in that way,” he said. “Out of a habit of mind, I clung to the idea of India as a liberal democracy, the world’s largest. But entering the United States in September, I was aware for the first time that I was no longer merely an immigrant, no longer someone moving between his home country and an adoptive one. I was an exile.”

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