Grand Tamasha

Aatish Taseer on India, Indian Politics, and Citizenship

Episode Summary

Aatish Taseer joins Milan to explain his reaction after learning that the Indian government was revoking his status as an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI).

Episode Notes

This week on Grand Tamasha, Milan sits down with the writer Aatish Taseer, an award-winning author who writes extensively about India and South Asia in his growing body of fiction and non-fiction writing. His most recent book, “The Twice Born: Life and Death on the Ganges,” is part travelogue, part social commentary, and part autobiographical journey of self-discovery set in the city of Benares, the spiritual capital of Hinduism.

Two weeks ago, Aatish received notice that the government of India was revoking his status as an Overseas Citizen of India—known as OCI. The government alleges that Aatish concealed the fact that his father, the late Salman Taseer, was a Pakistani citizen (a violation of OCI regulations). Aatish was born in London, is now a permanent resident of the United States, but was raised in New Delhi, where he spent his formative years. Milan speaks with Aatish about his life, his reporting, and the latest developments around his citizenship status.

Episode Transcription

Intro:                                     00:00                     "Unabashed" "The most unpredictable" "becomes a headline." "The most volatile" "outrageous behavior." “Unsubstantiated narratives" "A battle of personalities."

Milan Vaishnav:                00:11                     Welcome to Grand Tamashsha, I'm your host Milan Vaishnav of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Aatish Taseer is an award winning author who writes about India and South Asia in his extensive body of fiction and nonfiction writing. His most recent book, The Twice Born: Life and Death on the Ganges is part travel log, part social commentary and part autobiographical journey of self discovery set in the city of Benares, the spiritual capital of Hinduism. Two weeks ago, Aatish received notice that the Government of India was revoking a status as an overseas citizen of India, known as an OCI. Aatish, was born in London, is now a permanent resident of the United States, but was raised in New Delhi where he spent his formative years. The move comes just months after Aatish authored a Time Magazine cover story that was highly critical of Prime Minister Narendra Modi's first term in office to talk about his life, his reporting, and the latest developments around his citizenship status, Aatish Taseer joins me by phone today from New York. Aatish. Thanks for coming on the show.

Aatish Taseer:                   01:03                     Hi Milan.

Milan Vaishnav:                01:05                     So Aatish, before we talk about sort of the more recent developments in your life, I want to rewind the clock a bit and take our listeners back to the year 2014 you were reporting on the Indian general election campaign from North India and I remember reading a piece of yours in Open Magazine in early 2014 where you were covering a Modi rally on the outskirts of Delhi and you wrote the following quote, if I have sympathy for Modi, if I wish to see him succeed, it's because of my sympathy for the people who support him. It is this India -clearheaded restless, hungry - that has energized this election. It is this India that some of us have been waiting to see come into being. I want you to take us back to that moment for a, for a second and describe the signs of hope that you saw and Narendra Modi back in 2014.

Aatish Taseer:                   01:53                     Right. Well, a couple of things. For one, you know, outside this sort of rarefied circles of Delhi, I knew on the side of whether it was Hindu or Muslim or Sikh to be a country that was A. Very religious B. It did have prejudices. It was not necessarily like used to the sort of political discourse of like liberal Delhi circles. And I thought that there had to be room where people would with fresh blood would come in and that we would see a sort of evolution or an arc. And so when Modi started to talk about business, when he started to talk about what seemed like the possibilities of a new conservatism in India of uof, of a move away from socialist economics, I thought that there has to be room in our political life for the evolution of such a man.

Aatish Taseer:                   02:44                     And also coming back to the people that supported him. I covered that election on the ground and it was an election of hope and it was an election where people would be confronted with questions about the temple in Ayodhya. Or about what they call communal issues, which is the sectarian issues in India and questions about religious passion and people would result respond quite resolutely to say that what they were interested in was development and that they thought that this man was going to deliver on those, on those fronts. And so even though I saw that the election was mixed in with religious chauvinism, with nationalism, with some of this sentiment that's come to the fore now, I thought it was a gamble about which way it could go. I thought that that was, there was the possibility that it would bring forth a much needed second side to Indian politics.

Milan Vaishnav:                03:42                     You know, two years later in 2016 you wrote an opinion piece in the New York Times and you sort of hearkened back to the electrifying possibility of change that Modi represented in 2013 and 2014 on the campaign trail. By then it seems you'd become somewhat disappointed in the pace of economic reform Modi and his government were pursuing. You wrote that this sort of the rage that developed against the old socialist state propelled mr Modi forward. It wasn't a mandate for gentle reform, but for profound change from the ground up. Just sticking with the economics for a second, what was it in those first couple of years that really disappointed you about his economic performance in office?

Aatish Taseer:                   04:22                     I, I suppose it seems very obvious now, but I suppose I misjudged to what extent a man like Modi coming out of the RSS would think of economic liberalization as we know it in the West almost as a form of plunder, almost as if you were selling the country. And so a lot of the changes that he needed to make, whether it came to sort ofprivatizing companies of opening India to business of, of of, of working on labor laws, that whole world of reform seemed actually quite foreign to him. And I remember very early on, I think in 2014 Sadanand Dhume had organized a conference or a meeting in Delhi a dinner of can the economic rights and the economic lefts can - can the cultural rights and the economic rights get along or can they find a sort of common ground?

Aatish Taseer:                   05:24                     And I think back to that moment a lot because the economic right had all these expectations, but they had no power. The cultural right had all the power and they didn't really know even the shape of the thoughts of conservatism in any kind of form that resembled Reagan or Thatcher. And within a couple of years of Modi, it became completely clear that, that, that, that he was really a deep statist. I mean, he was somebody who wanted to, to sort of, at best make bureaucracy function a little bit and tinker here and tinker there, but he was not interested in the kind of reform that India needed. And of course a side by side - which was far more worrying - was that that he was not afraid to let a climate develop against Muslims. He was not prepared when very, very ugly episodes happened like the first lynching, to say no, this is not going to be tolerated. And at that point he could have said it so easily. I think there was a kind of country imploring him to speak out resolutely against this and he was not interested in doing that. And so I thought, Oh wow. Well here, here you have to have all the kind of ugliness of chauvinism and you don't have - or the ugliness of the right - but you don't have some of the things that one might consider, like the benefits of, of conservatives and more the benefits of right wing politics in India, the right wing politics. I mean, just old fashioned conservatism.

Milan Vaishnav:                07:01                     So I was reading a recent interview you gave with the Indian newspaper Mint and you said that the lynching Mohammad Akhlaq who is a 52 year old Muslim man who was lynched on suspicion of slaughtering a cow, was a turning point for you. I'm curious, what was it about that incident in particular that was sort of decisive and sort of changing your views on Modi? What did it signify to your mind?

Aatish Taseer:                   07:24                     Well, it was and I, I think I've, I've written about this later, you know lynching is a very, as it was in the American South, it's a public spectacle. It's a public murder. It demands an audience. There's an element of theater woven in and it's a symbolic crime rather than just, you know, somebody getting mugged in the streets or somebody - even in a riot, you have casualties - But this is to take an individual and to kill him in a public way and to put it before the public for their reaction. And something like that happened with Akhlaq and you saw a kind of country kind of holding its breath and everyone wanted the prime minister and to respond. To respond to the gruesomeness of it, to respond to the, to the actual details of, of what had occurred. And, and to really - to stop this atmosphere from going any further.

Aatish Taseer:                   08:25                     And this man who's very voluble, very articulate, very able to sort of, you know, - he has a kind of, he has an electrifying growl when he wants to use it - was completely silent. It was a sort of, it was an astonishing silence. And he was prepared to defend that silence. And obviously what happened was that the crime repeated again and again. So much so that not a month went by through his five year time where there was not incident after gruesome incident. And every time the prime minister kept his counsel in a way that was, that I thought was absolutely menacing.

Milan Vaishnav:                09:06                     But you know, the argument Aatish that a lot of people have made is, you know, when there is a terrible police shooting in the United States for instance, or a violent incident, the president of the United States can't be expected to kind of comment on any and every issue under the sun. I mean is it also the case that the prime minister you know, can't get involved in sort of local law and order issues? Like, what's the threshold for him to, to speak up and say something?

Aatish Taseer:                   09:34                     I mean he's very good at reading a situation. He's very good at reading what's happening in - you're absolutely right. But when that moment comes when Obama has to sing amazing grace for a shooting that has, has exceeded the bounds of just a normal crime and becomes something for which the country needs to be consoled, a good politician knows what to do and Mr. Modi is a very good politician. So it was, it wasn't an accidental silence. It wasn't as if he couldn't read the political moment and he thought, "Oh an unfortunate incident has occurred in the remote area." People were besieging him to speak out and, and, and he made a decision, a political decision from an astute politician. It just happened to be absolutely the wrong decision.

Milan Vaishnav:                10:23                     I want to turn now to what is now the infamous Time Magazine cover story published just before the 2019 election result came out. For those who haven't seen it, the cover featured an illustrated portrait of the prime minister with the corresponding headline. To your story, "India's Divider in Chief." In the cover piece inside the magazine, you wrote quote, not only has Modi's economic miracle failed to materialize, he has also helped create an atmosphere of poisonous religious nationalism in India of the kind that you and I have just been speaking about, the reaction at the time on social media was fierce and it was swift. And I'm wondering if you could tell us a little bit about, you know, what was the kind of response that you received?

Aatish Taseer:                   11:04                     Well, I mean it, like I've, I think I've said in the past, I don't really believe it was the text of the article. There were a number of articles in that election cycle from The Economist and other publications that were in fact probably less fair to Mr. Modi or more severe about his performance. I think it was the culmination of this, this cover image and the description of him as a divider and chief. And perhaps it's almost a kind of a like a sort of outdated, sort of nostalgia or sort of esteem in which Time Magazine was held and used as sort of market prestige. And suddenly this image was being used to sort of say something negative about Modi and it sent his followers into a frenzy. So that, so that, you know, to get the endless trolling and the stuff on social media.

Aatish Taseer:                   11:54                     But they were vandalizing my Wikipedia page. The consul general was calling the editors of Time, the consul general in then New York. And what worried me very much at the time was that the spokesman of the BJP started to say this - started to discredit me on the basis - that this man is a Pakistani. And it was a lie that the prime minister repeated and used his sort of great megaphone and sort of tell people that I - this article - should not be taken seriously because I was a Pakistani. And it was a year of hostilities between these two countries. It was, tensions were very, very high and I thought he's really putting me in a very dangerous place. I, this is, I once I once saw him do this with the journalist Barkha Dutt. In fact that that same rally that you mentioned earlier, she'd been in at the World Economic Forum in Davos and has attended a breakfast that was organized by the Pakistani prime minister and he started to sort of direct people's passions against this journalist who would go to the breakfast organized by the Pakistani prime minister. And it's, it's a very, as you know, a very combustible thing to say or do in India. And, and he started to kind of deploy this sort of language against me and and, and, and I think it's probably brought us to the present moment.

Milan Vaishnav:                13:18                     Speaking of the present, it's been about two weeks now since the government announced that it would be revoking your status as an overseas citizen of India or OCI which allows non-resident Indians like yourself a permanent visa essentially to enter the country. And sort of stay as long as you like, and it also gives you a number of other benefits. In India. I'm wondering, you know, this seems like a, a silly question, but I just want to sort of get it on the record. Do you think that this move was retaliation for your Time cover story and if so, why do you think that?

Aatish Taseer:                   13:55                     I absolutely do think that because the grounds on which it was taken away was that I had concealed or lied about my father's Pakistani origin which would preclude me from having such a card. But this is absurd on so many levels because I've written books and articles about my father's Pakistani origin and it was completely in the public domain, known to the senior leadership of the BJP, and more importantly, my mother was a single mother who was never married to my father who raised me on her own in India. And it was on that basis that she applied for me to get this document. And it was, it, it gave me status in India - at a time - and it's to put 20years never been questioned, never been a problem. And suddenly three months after the prime minister starts to kind of deploy this rhetoric against me of calling me a Pakistani, I receive a letter telling me that my status is under question and the letter doesn't come giving me the full 21 days to respond and - and it needed a full legal response - I needed lawyers to actually respond to it. I was given almost 24 hours and more importantly, the ministry started to leak information about this case to the press. And as soon as the story broke, they were on Twitter tweeting against me and they canceled the document on Twitter. I mean anything to give you a sense of the kind of this sort of malicious, dare I say it almost Trumpian way in which this government was operating. The fact that you would cancel an official document on Twitter before even informing the person who's by a form of letter. So it was a, it was really the whole thing was handled in a way that I felt that I was being made an example of I was being, it was being shown to people. If you want to write about the government, you want to, you want to get, you want to do this sort of piece, well there's a price to pay. And of course it comes as part of a pattern because it's not - this was one way to get at me- but they've got at many other people, whether it's the Roys of NDTV, whether it's Pratap Bhanu Mehta being pushed out of his position at the Ashoka university. In every area of life, this has been their modus operandi. So why should it surprise us that this was the way particular way they came off to me?

Milan Vaishnav:                16:26                     So I want to, I'll come back to some of the particulars of your case, but before I do that, just for some of our listeners who may not be aware of, of your background, you were born in London in the year 1980, I believe to Tavleen Singh, who many of our listeners will know is a well-regarded, prominent Indian journalist and the late Pakistani politician Salman Taseer. You moved to India when you're two years old and, as you said, we're raised by a single mother who never married your biological father. Tell us a little bit about what your life was like growing up in India.

Aatish Taseer:                   17:01                     I lived a fairly, fairly idyllic, like Delhi in those days was not a gas chamber. It was a very sort of small rather doll political capital with a very, very charming like cultural life. And I would, my mother was a journalist, so I was raised very much with politics in the house. I was on election campaigns a lot. And I was also a w for me, one of the more painful parts of this is that, you know, I had, I was because of my mother being vulnerable, both economically as well as socially because she was a single woman raising a child who'd been born out of wedlock. I had my grandparents who were my father, my grandfather was an Indian army officer and my grandmother had, who might in a situation like this have been very scandalized, might've, might've excluded my mother from her family actually took us in. So we lived with my grandparents and and they were very they really represented to me some of the best of what India was about because instead of ever making me feel excluded, ever making me feel embarrassed about this situation I was in, they really showered me with love and affection and made me feel very much that this was my family and this was my country. And, and actually, you know I have to say in fairness to the kind of country India was, or at least a circle of India in those in those sort of liberal secular days, nobody else was really unkind either. It was a very nurturing, very accepting environment. There was a fairly high level of culture of and obviously it was a, it was a country which I, I've written in many ways about in my books where, an elite, an English speaking elite, lived in a fairly isolated fashion and at a great remove from the country at large. So some of the politics that we've seen resurface recently had a kind of inevitability about it. But there you are.

Milan Vaishnav:                19:10                     You discuss your own process of trying to understand who your father was and where he came from and your 2007 book, "Stranger to History: A Son's Journey Through Islamic Lands." would you mind telling our listeners a bit about what your relationship was like with your father? When did you finally actually meet him?

Aatish Taseer:                   19:27                     It was from the age of two to 21, absolutely non-existent. I, I never set eyes on the man and I'm, as far as I know, my mother didn't have very much, didn't have any communication either. She, she told me about their relationship. She was always very open. I think she gave me his name to protect me because, you know, it was one, it was bad enough to not have a father. It was probably even worse, to in those days and in the 80s sort of, be a kind of whatever you call it, an illegitimate child or a love child or whatever. So she tried to sort of, you know, make it seem as if as this, there'd been you know, that their relationship had kind of had been formalized in ways that really it hadn't. But but it was a completely non-existent relationship for me and it was an absence, but it was not particularly painful for a long time as I was, I had a very nurturing Indian family and as I started to become a writer, I started to sort of become more self aware.

Aatish Taseer:                   20:33                     I felt that this was something that I needed to explore, that I couldn't leave such a big personal absence unexplored. Unexcavated I felt that that one of the prerogatives of being the writer was to sort of live the examined life or to know oneself and that it was sort of important for me as a form of closure to actually seek out the man. And in 2002, that's what I did and we had quite a troubled relationship. I mean, we had a few years where we went, got on reasonably well, but by 2005 when I'd written the cover story of Prospect Magazine about the London bombing, it offended my father as a Pakistani and and it sort of, we were starting to be estranged again. The last time I set eyes on him was 2008 when Benazir Bhutto was killed and we were together in Pakistan for that one night. But otherwise it was a pretty vexed relationship. But yeah, that's really that's probably about as much as I should say about it.

Milan Vaishnav:                21:45                     The Government of India has argued as far as I can tell on social media and through official spokespeople that you have misled authorities about the true identity of your father. I should just mention for our listeners, who may not be aware of the fine print, under OCI regulations, no person to Pakistani or Bangladeshi origins allowed to hold OCI status. I'm wondering Aatish, how would you respond to the allegation that is out there that you sort of concealed the identity of your father in order to obtain OCI status?

Aatish Taseer:                   22:13                     So I want to respond to that on very, on many levels. Firstly, quite beyond the world of legalese, it's very clear from many, many books and many, many articles that I was not engaged in any kind of behavior of concealment. Leaving that aside, my father's name is on the document, is on the OCI that I surrendured yesterday and all - what, what is really in question is nothing that I've ever done because my PIO was related to an OCI. It's the original application in my mother made in 2000 in which she approached the government as a single woman and she gave them as much information as she could. What they're accusing us of is not having provided my father's citizenship document, which my mother at that point could never have provided and because she had no access to him and neither did I. Moreover, that document obviously didn't seem to matter to the government because they issued the OCI anyway.

Aatish Taseer:                   23:11                     And so what the, the worst thing that could've happened in this whole situation is a bureaucratic mistake, a bureaucratic era in which the government, by the way, it's probably just as much to blame as we, as they, as they accuse us of being, but they are not interested in, they're not interested in looking in any way in this broader picture that perfectly within their rights to grant an exemption. It's part of the Citizenship Act. You would think no one would be more eligible than someone like me who's grown up with a single mother in India all his life, who's work has been steeped India. But this is not what the government is doing. They don't, they're weaponizing a technicality in which they're as much to blame to go after me, and I was at the consulate yesterday, but there was no word where they said, "listen, you know, this is an unfortunate incident. Even if we're taking this away, we could perhaps issue you a visa. Why don't you come and see us? "The Consul general has been very much, very, very much in contact when he's been asking me to sort of not speak about this or not sort of embarrass the government, but when it comes to my being able to return to my country, he's completely silent. And the way, the grounds on which they've taken the OCI, which is the grounds of concealment and fraud, makes me ineligible to have a normal visa for India and I'm effectively blacklisted from the country I grew up in. So if all of this together doesn't seem to you like behavior that in which there's a thread of malice running through it. I mean, I just, I don't know what more to say.

Milan Vaishnav:                24:46                     After you were told initially that your status was in jeopardy, were you able to make your case to government authorities?

Aatish Taseer:                   24:54                     No, I, the letter was dated August 13th. I was in Delhi til almost August 20th, 21st - no sign of this letter. It arrived. I had left India and was on holiday and my mother had sent me the message by WhatsApp, at which point I had basically 24 hours to respond. And, and my husband being a lawyer, we put together like as much of a response as we could in 24 hours. But we obviously had, you know, we didn't have the, the adequate time required to prepare the response.

Milan Vaishnav:                25:29                     So you've now as of yesterday, surrendered your OCI card. What do you plan to do next?

Aatish Taseer:                   25:36                     I, I plan to use every avenue available to me. Which obviously, I think the first step is to us, the government itself for review. And by which point it would be like, like it's an opportunity for the government if they're not acting out of malice, if they're not acting out a punishment to take serious, such a process. And then obviously further on, we have the question of the courts and things like that, but you know, it's a very, very long road ahead and I'm forced to do it because it, it's, it's a question of really being able to see my family again. And, you know, my grandmother's 90, my mother's 70, this is the country where all my work is based. I've been devoted to Indian language, Indian learning, in fact, many of the things that the BJP is so fond of and was used to praise about me til sort of six months ago. And so to cut me off like that is also to, to sort of really it's to really harm me as a writer. And so I'm forced to fight.

Milan Vaishnav:                26:46                     I want to read to you Aatish something that I saw on social media, which was a, a response to this whole trail of events of the past few weeks, which said, you know essentially the OCI card has been sold by Indian diplomats as a kind of citizenship status. But it, what it boils down to, it's a lifetime visa. And with any visa issued by any country, the government is within its right to revoke someone's visa. Really, for whatever reason it sees fit, and the United States could do the same. What would be your response to that?

Aatish Taseer:                   27:20                     I think that that's absolutely right. I mean, the government is quite, aside from the fact that that they're within their rights, they could, you know, the OCI regulations for instance, doesn't allow journalism. It also doesn't allow mountaineering. But if you weaponize a clause against an individual to kind of target them for something they've written, well, the government is given many, many rights. If the government wants to abuse those rights, we're dealing with a different kind of government but, you know, I can't contest the fact that the government has that power.

Milan Vaishnav:                27:55                     The winter session of parliament began yesterday and the government has announced it plans to table the much discussed Citizenship Amendment Bill. This bill has gotten a lot of attention for the expedited citizenship rights it bestows on many non Muslim religious minorities who are seeking refuge in India. That the bill also contains a provision that allows the government of India to revoke OCI status if the OCI holder is in violation of quote any Indian law end quote. What sort of impact do you think this provision might have on OCI holders? You know, other than yourself?

Aatish Taseer:                   28:30                     Well, I think what the government, the government is, I think moving in a very systematic way, they have already completely altered the media landscape within India to create a very pliant, very jingoistic media. We know that the people who are dissenters, including people who should go unnamed right now, but who've been given threatening phone calls told that they may not be able to leave the country. Some people that have actually been prohibited from leaving the country. One of the things that the government is afraid of is their reputation abroad. And just as I was in that position, probably somebody like yourself is, there is a number of other people who both know India and also have the security of living abroad are in a position to write very intelligently about India is what is to write critically about this government and hold it to account.

Aatish Taseer:                   29:18                     And I believe that the government wants to shut down this avenue as well. So that finally perhaps all, that's left are kind of are foreign correspondents and we know that they can be on different kinds of pressure. But this is in my opinion, the government is taking for itself certain policies that allow it leverage over people that so far it hasn't, who it hasn't been able to control. And I, yeah, I think that, I think we're looking at at a, at a transition that reminds me very, very much of what Turkey felt like in the first and second Erdogan term. And I was in Turkey at that time and I saw that country change in certain ways. And I think that that really India is that, the movement is towards a kind of illiberal democracy that the prime minister doesn't really admire Western democracy but probably looks much more to places like Turkey, places like China where and his contempt for the press has been expressed in time off the time, not least to the fact that he hasn't held a single press conference since he became prime minister.

Milan Vaishnav:                30:31                     Aatish, let me just end by asking you one last question. If. In the process of your appealing to decision, the Government of India comes back and says, look according to the letter of the law your biological father is a Pakistani and therefore you are ineligible for this status and we should not have granted it to you. In the first place, but we have to apply the law equally for everyone and we can't make exceptions. What would your reaction be to that?

Aatish Taseer:                   31:03                     I would, I suppose I would, I would have to judge what the government's motivations are. My feeling is that they would say that not only is that the case, but you're effectively blacklisted and that you know, you're really cut off from your country, in which case I would have to move the courts or I would have to move some other avenue. I have no feeling of conviction that I'll succeed, but I don't really have an option. But, but to try.

Milan Vaishnav:                31:31                     Aatish Taseer is the author most recently of "The Twice Born: Life and Death on the Ganges." He joins us by phone today from New York City. Aatish, thanks for coming on the show.

Aatish Taseer:                   31:40                     Thank you so much Milan.

Outro:                                   31:40                     The Grand Tamasha is a co-production of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and the Hindustan Times. You can find us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Don't forget to rate and review. It helps others find the show more easily. For more information about the show and to find the writing we referenced on this week's episode, visit our website Production assistance comes from Megan Maxwell and Rachel Osnos. Tim Martin is our audio engineer and Lauren Dueck is our executive producer. Thanks for listening and see you next week.