Margaret Atwood, Salman Rushdie, Paul Auster, Mia Farrow, Christiane Amanpour, and Gloria Steinem, are among over 260 luminaries who have signed a PEN America letter calling on the Indian government to reverse its decision to rescind a citizenship document for Aatish Taseer, a British-born journalist of Indian heritage. The letter accuses the Indian government of punishing Taseer for his critical coverage of the country’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi.
“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,” the letter, which is addressed to Modi’s office in New Delhi, reads.
In May 2019, during the election season in India, Taseer wrote a cover story for TIME magazine, which described Modi as “India’s Divider in Chief.” The article drew an official complaint from the Indian government and was followed by vitriolic comments on Taseer’s Twitter account. Sambit Patra, the spokesperson of Modi’s political party, Bharatiya Janata Party (PJB), publicly reprimanded Taseer for the article, calling him a “Pakistani national.”
Earlier this month, Indian officials revoked Taseer’s Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) status, which allows foreign citizens of Indian heritage to live and work in India indefinitely. (OCI is equivalent to dual nationality, which India doesn’t officially allow). The authorities claimed that the journalist’s citizenship documents were revoked because he concealed information about his father’s Pakistani nationality. In Indian law, OCI status is not granted to an individual whose parent or grandparent is of Pakistani or Bangladeshi origin.
The PEN America letter claims in response that Taseer has never concealed information about his heritage and that in fact it hass been extensively discussed in his books and articles. Taseer, the letter explains, was raised by his Indian mother, journalist Tavleen Singh, and her family. The letter adds that in his application for the OCI status, Taseer listed his father, Pakistani politician and businessman Salmaan Taseer, whom he met only later in life.
“It’s intolerable for the Indian government to hide behind the fig leaf of bureaucracy,” said Karin Deutsch Karlekar, director of PEN America’s Free Expression at Risk Programs, in a statement sent to Hyperallergic. “Aatish has held his OCI status for many years and has always publicly disclosed his family’s background, which was never before an issue. This is outright retaliation against a journalist who has ticked off an increasingly nationalistic and authoritarian prime minister. Let’s not pretend this is something else.”
In another, recent article for TIME magazine — headlined “I am Indian. Why Is the Government Sending Me Into Exile?” — Taseer wrote a personal account of his futile attempts to maintain his OCI status. “It is easy to see my situation as an individual or unique. But it is symptomatic of a much larger movement,” he wrote. “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.”
PEN America’s letter adds:
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. We write to respectfully request that the Indian government review this decision, to ensure that Aatish Taseer has access to his childhood home and family, and that other writers are not similarly targeted.
Other signatories on the letter include Anita Desai, Louise Erdrich, Jhumpa Lahiri, Suketu Mehta, Maaza Mengiste, Perumal Murugan, Edna O’Brien, Orhan Pamuk, Manil Suri, Amitav Ghosh, Philip Gourevitch, and dozens of others.
Taseer is currently based in the United States. PEN America warns that he might be placed on a blacklist that can deny him future entry into India. “Out of a habit of mind, I clung to the idea of India as a liberal democracy, the world’s largest,” Taseer wrote at the end of his TIME magazine essay. “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.”