No country for dissenters

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The message sent out by the government by the revocation of the Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) status of writer and journalist Aatish Taseer is that critics of Prime Minister Narendra Modi are not welcome in India. The reason given by the government for its action is unconvincing. Taseer is a British citizen by birth, his mother is Indian and he grew up in India but now resides in New York. His father was of Pakistani origin, and the government’s reason is that this fact, which makes him ineligible for the OCI status, was concealed in his application. His father also had British citizenship, and in any case, Taseer says his father and mother were not formally married. There may be technical or material arguments over this, but the point is that the government suddenly realised this though he was given the Person of Indian Origin (PIO) card in 2000 and the OCI status in 2016. Taseer’s parentage is a widely known fact, of which he has himself written publicly.

What happened since 2016 to make Taseer a persona non grata is that he wrote an article in Time magazine in May this year describing Modi as the ‘Divider-in-Chief’, and his politics as divisive. The article was discussed widely in India and abroad. Obviously, Taseer is being punished for his article, and it is an assault on free speech and expression. The government has in various ways tried to curb such freedoms, and this is an obvious and blatant case. The action has given rise to criticism within the country and outside. Over 250 well-known writers, journalists and activists, including Nobel Prize winners, have written to the prime minister seeking a review of the action. They have said that Taseer has been targeted for an extremely personal retaliation for his writing and that denial of entry to writers would cast a chill on public discourse and threaten India’s traditions of free and open debate and diversity of views. Writers’ bodies like PEN International have also criticised the government’s action. 

The episode has tarnished India’s image as a democratic and secular state which allows all views to be expressed and where there is no discrimination against any citizen on any basis. It comes after the government took strong-arm measures to suppress people’s freedoms in Kashmir, which are still continuing. But the issue is not just one of the international image, but of the continuance of our tolerant and democratic traditions. There is an environment of intolerance and suppression and punishment of dissent in the country. The action against Taseer has sent out another bad signal, the worse because it is from the government which is expected to and has the responsibility to protect freedoms. 

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