The case of Aatish Taseer, a young, New York-based journalist and writer whose Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) status was revoked on Thursday, is lamentable for several reasons. One, official protestations notwithstanding, it can’t but be construed as an assault by the government on free speech and expression, given the circumstances. Two, it is the most open and high-profile expression yet of official vindictiveness since taking away the OCI card is a means to make sure the person in question will not be able to enter India (in his case to visit his mother) again if the government’s vendetta action is not reconsidered.
Three, and not the least, the episode casts India — not just the present government — in poor light. Since a full-fledged single-party rule took hold five years ago, this country has taken rapid strides in becoming an illiberal society with encouragement from those in power and from those who are the ideology-minders of the establishment.
These are among the issues that Mr Taseer had sought to flag, with a tinge of regret it appeared since he regarded himself as a child of India, in May in an article for Time magazine, an American weekly journal with an international profile, “Divider-In-Chief”, in a reference to Prime Minister Narendra Modi. For fear of consequences, no Indian publication might summon the resources to write with the same frankness. The establishment was clearly upset. In a properly democratic setup, a strong, well-reasoned, rebuttal would have sufficed. Indeed, Time sought to make amends with another article “Unifier”. But the rulers are not easily propitiated.
The Union home ministry ended the journalist’s OCI status on the ground that he did not raise objections to an official query in which the assertion was made that his father was of Pakistani origin. Mr Taseer’s response, made public, makes it amply clear that this is not the case.
The journalist-writer’s defence is crystal clear: His Indian mother and his father were not married and that she was his sole legal guardian until he came of age, growing up in New Delhi for a good part. (As such, his father’s nationality is immaterial.) It is to be presumed this would have been taken into account when he duly applied for and was given OCI status.
The home ministry would be fully aware of this and had no business raising any queries. It is therefore a fair presumption that the episode was orchestrated — following the article he wrote — in order to deprive Mr Taseer of his OCI status. It is to be doubted that the official stance can withstand judicial challenge (unless the court is pliable, and nothing will be a surprise any more).
PEN America, a free speech organisation in the US, and the Committee to Protect Journalists have sharply criticised the anti-free speech and suppression of journalists angle in the matter. This indictment is likely to be taken seriously on the international plane, sullying our country’s image.