Following Time Cover, India Retaliates.
This essay was originally published in PRESSING, a press freedom newsletter, on Friday. You can subscribe to get the newsletter in your inbox on Tuesdays and Fridays by signing up here.
An Angry Narendra Modi Punishes a Critic.
In early May, Aatish Taseer wrote something that got him in trouble.
Taseer’s article, “India’s Divider in Chief,” criticized India’s Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, and expressed concern for five more years of Modi’s rule. “As India gets ready to give this willful provincial, so emblematic of her own limitations, a second term, one cannot help but tremble at what he might yet do to punish the world for his own failures,” Taseer concluded the piece.
But, the article wasn’t just anywhere. It was on the cover of Time Magazine’s international edition. Say what you will about Time’s presence in the United States. But, it’s staying power in India is undeniable.
To paraphrase what an Indian-born friend recently told me, “My parents in India don’t care about The Washington Post. But, they very much care about Time.”
Let’s fast forward to September. The Indian Ministry of Home Affairs sent Taseer’s parents a letter saying that they were revoking his Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI), a permanent visa that allows Taseer to live in the U.S. while retaining his Indian citizenship. “India doesn’t recognize dual nationality and the OCI — a permanent visa for persons of Indian origin — is the nearest equivalent to dual citizenship and provided to millions of Indians around the world,” Taseer wrote in Time yesterday after the incident came to a head.
The government gave Taseer 21 days to respond, contesting their claims. He says he responded immediately. After all, he hadn’t received the letter until day 20.
Yesterday, The Print, an Indian news outlet, reported that the government was considering taking away Taseer’s OCI card. The article noted that Taseer has been “under attack” from BJP leaders, those in the prime minister’s party, since the article came out.
The government referred to Taseer as a “Pakistani national,” which Taseer strongly refutes. He was born in London and raised in India, though his father was Pakistani. But, his relationship with his father was always complicated.
Here’s Taseer’s explanation:
“Not only was I not a Pakistani, but my relationship with my father — who was Governor of Punjab in Pakistan when he was assassinated in 2011 — had been complicated. Born out of wedlock, I was not in contact with my father until I was 21. I was born in Britain and have British citizenship, but since the age of two I had lived and grown up in India, with my Indian mother, who is a well-known journalist. She had raised me on her own in Delhi and was always my 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.”
Taseer found out his OCI card had been revoked yesterday, through a tweet.
(Yes, in the sense that Modi’s regime tweets out news before the people affected have been given notice, there’s a striking similarity with the Trump White House.)
“Mr. Aatish Ali Taseer, while submitting his PIO application, concealed the fact that his late father was of Pakistani origin,” the Ministry of Home Affairs spokesperson tweeted yesterday. “Mr. Taseer was given the opportunity to submit his reply/objections regarding his PIO/OCI cards, but he failed to dispute the notice. Thus, Aatish Ali Taseer becomes ineligible to hold an OCI card as per the Citizenship Act, 1955. He has clearly not complied with very basic requirements and hidden information.”
Taseer disputes that a.) he had concealed his father’s origins and b.) that he failed to respond to the government’s letter. For the latter, he has receipts.
While the government denies they are retaliating against Taseer for his article, the personal attacks on him have not subsided. Vijay Chauthaiwale, the BJP’s foreign policy chief, called Taseer a “rabid Islamist” on Twitter yesterday. The writer Sadanand Dhume replied, “If @AatishTaseer is an Islamist, I’m the crown prince of Liechtenstein.”
There’s a sobering tone in Taseer’s latest piece. Beyond the absurdity of the incident, there’s deep pain:
“I read the letter, which in bland bureaucratic language informed me that the country I was raised in and lived in for most of my adult life was no longer mine… India is my country. The relationship is so instinctive that, like an unwritten constitution, I had never before felt it necessary 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.”
Just about every press freedom advocacy group has condemned the Indian government’s actions. Taseer and, well, anyone with eyes can see that this is clearly retaliation for publishing the Time article.
But now, Taseer is in exile: a man unable to return home.
Is there no greater punishment than being separated from friends and family, from your sense of “home,” from the soil, and storefronts, foods, and scenery that make most sense to you? In New York, where he lives and work, Taseer may not be a “stranger in a strange land,” but when you know you can’t go home, to your real home, nothing can really replace that pain.