Last week, the Union government revoked writer Aatish Taseer’s Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) status, which allows non-resident Indians a permanent visa to enter and stay in the country indefinitely. A British citizen by birth, Taseer believes it was a motivated move. On 14 November, PEN America released a statement—signed by Salman Rushdie, Amitav Ghosh, Jhumpa Lahiri, and over 260 other writers, journalists and activists—requesting the government to reconsider its decision.
In May, as the general election unfolded, Taseer had written a scathing indictment of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s administration in Time magazine, which ran on the cover with the headline “India’s Divider In Chief". Criticizing the prime minister for his failure to revive the economy during his first term in office (2014-19), Taseer accused him of creating “an atmosphere of poisonous religious nationalism in India". He didn’t spare the opposition either—describing it as “led by Rahul Gandhi, an unteachable mediocrity and a descendant of Nehru".
In no time, Modi’s supporters began to attack, bully and threaten Taseer on Twitter. Sambit Patra, a spokesperson of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), labelled him a Pakistani. Finally, in September, the government revoked his OCI status. As Taseer wrote in an article in Time on 8 November, he was accused of concealing his father’s Pakistani identity. He was given 21 days to respond but the letter, Taseer says, reached him on the 20th day of the deadline. The government accused him of concealing his father’s identity /while applying for the OCI.
Born in London, in 1980, to the Indian journalist Tavleen Singh and Salman Taseer, the late Pakistani politician and governor of Punjab, Taseer came to live in India with his mother in 1982. He was raised by Singh as his sole legal guardian, as his parents never married. Taseer did not meet his father until 2002, and even then, their relationship remained tepid. In 2011, Salman Taseer was assassinated.
In 2007, Taseer wrote his first book, Stranger To History: A Son’s Journey Through Islamic Lands, in an attempt to understand his mixed origins and heritage, based on his travels through the Arab world. He followed it up with three novels, The Temple-Goers (2010), Noon (2011) and The Way Things Were (2014). His abiding interest in the question of what it means to be modern and Indian runs through his latest book, The Twice-Born: Life And Death On The Ganges, about the Brahmins of Varanasi.
In a phone interview from his home in New York, where he lives with his spouse, Taseer spoke about the cancellation of his OCI status, online trolling, and the way ahead. Edited excerpts:
What was your first reaction on learning about the cancellation of the OCI status?
Quite beyond the world of the legalese, it’s obvious that I have not engaged in any behaviour of concealment. If I was trying to hide any information, I would not have been writing books and articles about my father. I was especially galled that the government cancelled my OCI on Twitter. I barely had 24 hours to respond to the letter outlining my case—I immediately replied anyway and got an acknowledgement from the consul general in New York, but nothing from the home ministry. Although the home ministry’s spokesperson later claimed I hadn’t asserted my right to reply, I had done so. Then the ministry suddenly reviewed it and sent me a letter of cancellation, having first announced it on Twitter.
When your mother applied for your PIO status in 2000, did the government not check on your father’s identity?
My mother’s position has always been constant, ever since she came back to India from England with me. She made it clear that she was an Indian citizen, returning to India to raise her child as a single mother. It has always been her contention that there was no father in the picture. If she gave me his name, or did not disclose they were not married, it was just to protect me. India was still pretty conservative in those days, and it was bad enough to be the boy with no father, let alone born out of wedlock. The authorities would probably have asked her to provide whatever document she could and, I think, she gave them my birth certificate, but nothing further than that. My parents were never married and, in 2000, I had never even met my father. I first met him in 2002.
So, the matter of your father’s identity seems to have been raised much later.
Yes. Since the Time article came out, Sambit Patra has been saying that I am Pakistani—something that the prime minister repeated as well. I didn’t care about the trolling, I didn’t even care that my Wikipedia page was vandalized, but this claim was dangerous, especially in a year when we had virtually been at war with Pakistan.
In 2014, when the Modi government was elected, you were hopeful that things would change for the better.
It was a colossal error of judgement on my part. In my defence, it was an extremely bad time in Indian politics. There was a political reality that the government had to change. I felt that in a country like India, there had to be an arc of growth, or evolution, by which people could move past their prejudices. I thought one ought to be open to that possibility. However, if you read my dispatches from Varanasi during the 2014 electoral campaign, I was clear there was an air of menace as well. My mistake was not to realize that if a campaign contains that electrifying growl of Hindu nationalism, it would also be part of the regime that follows.
At what point did you realize that you had misread the situation?
The prime minister’s initial silence after the lynching of Mohammad Akhlaq (in Dadri village near Delhi) in 2015 was a decisive moment for me. From that point on, I was actively engaged in holding this government to account. Everything I wrote since then, in newspapers or in my book, was unequivocally critical of the atmosphere the government was engendering in India.
When you wrote the ‘Time’ article in May, did you expect such a backlash?
No. It was a piece forged out of a rejected pitch for The New York Times. The editors at Time liked it, and so, it kept evolving. I was actually more focused at the time on a profile of Imran Khan I was working on for Vanity Fair, so the Modi piece was something on the edges of my vision. When it exploded the way it did, it took me completely by surprise. To this day, I don’t think it’s the actual text that inflamed Modi’s supporters, but it was the visual imagery of him and the headline, “India’s Divider In Chief", which touched them in a visceral way.
Were you prepared to face the trolling on Twitter?
I don’t think anyone can be prepared to face that level of hostility. It wasn’t just the death threats, the defacement of social media and vandalizing of my page; on top of it all, the consul general came forward to make a formal complaint against me to my editors at Time. The scale of the reaction was nothing I could imagine.
Were you disappointed by Twitter’s hate speech regulations, which are getting flak at the moment in India, and their failure to offer protection against trolling?
Even now I am experiencing the most disgusting attacks associated with religious prejudice. I am not a religious person, but some of the trolls think I am Muslim—for some reason, even an Islamist. I am a gay man, married to a man, living in New York—the absurdity of it all! Even besides Twitter, the way the norm has shifted in India now in relation to what you can say against Muslims in the public sphere—it’s not the India I recognize any more. The rhetoric is normalized to the point that everyone seems to be speaking the language of expulsion and we all know where that kind of talk leads to.
You had a Westernized education and upbringing. What was it that made you want to understand the foundations of Indian culture?
I always thought that the Indian situation was odd, for the fact that we have 20 centuries of continuous writing and literary tradition. And yet, someone in my position, beginning as a writer, would not have thought of it as his literary inheritance. To me, it was a strange position to be in. Everywhere else in the world, writers would want other literary voices that were operating in that area, dealing with the same landscape, to be part of their own, writing part of their world of reference. But that was not true for India.
When I first started to translate (Saadat Hasan) Manto, many people in my milieu hadn’t even heard of him or didn’t think it was a valuable exercise to undertake. The minute that first gate opened, and Urdu writing, especially poetry, started coming my way, it became a natural progression. It was followed by the Sanskrit epics and plays, which I began to study over the years. I felt somebody reading a book of mine should be aware of my connection with the tradition of writing in India that extended as far back as one could go.
What has your relationship with Pakistan been like since you met your father?
At the time when I first met him, it was a terrible affront to me. What I always loved about India is its hybridity, syncretism, the fact of different groups standing in conjunction with one another and the interplay of history, culture and religion—that, to me, was the glory of India. To see that Indian diversity taken away in Pakistan struck me as violent. At the same time, if you have any connection with Punjab, the only place in the world where you have a sense of Punjabi high culture—the culture of Bulleh Shah and Waris Shah, what is called the golden heart of Punjab—is within the country that is Pakistan. It was stimulating for these reasons, but if anything, it also made me long for India.
How do you think India has changed over the last 10 years?
The idea of India that I describe to you, of its people believing in the glory of the country, that sentiment seems to have died. That idea is now seen as romantic, undesirable and cloying. It has been replaced by a muscular wish for purity and for the past to be cleansed of its mixtures.
Is that one of the reasons why you moved abroad?
My last novel (The Way Things Were, 2014) was about a man who found that society around him had changed in a way that he could no longer live there, that he was going to be pushed out. Something had occurred that was going to be detrimental for him. The things he loved were going to be repurposed in ways that wouldn’t be tolerable to him.
When the 2014 election happened, I had a puzzling reaction. On the one hand, for my journalist’s mind, I had almost a support or hopefulness for this government. But in a deeper region of my mind, I was full of misgivings. When I came to New York, I was open to leaving India in a way I had never been before. My commitment to staying in the country had faltered. Like the character in my novel, I had an intimation that society would change in ways where there would be no room for me.
In your 8 November piece for ‘Time’, you described your situation as unique but also symptomatic of this age.
Yes. We would have never thought that the word dissident—which we use in the case of China and Russia—might one day be invoked in the Indian context. Quite apart from any bureaucratic rule, for somebody who grew up in India and whose work has been deeply immersed in Indian life, I cannot return to this country because of an act of government—nobody can deny that reality. My grandmother, who is going to turn 90 next year, and who instilled in me, in the face of an unconventional situation, that Indian sense of belonging since my childhood, always made me feel that this was my country. It’s just incredibly heartbreaking for me that I won’t see her again.
People on Twitter have been pointing out I have a Muslim middle name, Ali. What they don’t know is that my Sikh grandmother gave it to me. It was she who said, “Hai, Aatish bada garam naam hai, kuch aur rakh lein (Oh, Aatish is too hot a name, let’s also give him another one)." The India that she was part of was a country where a Sikh woman could give her grandson such a name.
What do you plan to do now?
I absolutely intend to fight back. I believe there is an unspoken craving within India for change. Right now, it’s hard to see how it would materialize, or be given a voice, but I think it’s coming.