Salman Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk and Margaret Atwood are among more than 250 authors calling on India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi, to review the decision to strip British Indian writer Aatish Taseer of his Indian citizenship, saying that the move “flies in the face of India’s traditions of free and open debate”.
Taseer, who was born in the UK but grew up in India, is a novelist, memoirist and journalist. In May, he wrote a cover story for Time magazine under the headline “India’s divider in chief”, which was highly critical of Modi’s government. Last week, Taseer was stripped of his overseas citizenship of India (OCI) status, meaning he may be blacklisted and thus never able to return to the country, according to the free-speech organisation PEN.
Taseer found out about the revocation of his OCI status when India’s home ministry announced the decision on Twitter.
The boy who once sold tea at a railway station has become the most influential Indian leader in generations, winning a landslide in the 2019 elections. Or so goes the story that has become the core of Narendra Modi’s extraordinary appeal.
Modi was born in 1958 to a poor family in western India’s Gujarat state, where he developed a strong dislike for the ruling Congress party as a result of hanging around a political office near his father’s tea stall.
While still a child, he started attending daily meetings of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh, said to be the world’s largest volunteer organisation, whose Hindu nationalist ideology envisions the country’s diverse Hindu population as a single nation with a sacred culture that should be given primacy in India.
Hindu nationalists were sidelined by India’s founding prime minister, Jawaharlal Nehru, whose vision of India was of a secular nation at ease with its bewildering plurality. Their parties, including Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party (BJP), struggled to win more than 10% of the national vote for decades until the 1990s, when they started to expand on the back of a national campaign to demolish a 16th-century Mughal mosque and replace it with a Hindu temple.
BJP’s support was limited to wealthier Hindus in the country’s north and west, with resistance to the party from poor, marginalised Hindus, Muslims and south Indians thought to be permanent hurdles to Hindu nationalist domination.
Modi’s magnetism, especially his personal branding as a tea boy who climbed to the country’s highest ranks, has changed those calculations, drawing vast support from the country’s emerging middle and lower-middle classes. Young Indians had grown up being told their country was on the cusp of becoming a superpower. In Modi they had a leader who spoke as if it already was.
Alongside aspiration, the BJP promotes a vision of Hindu cultural supremacy that sidelines the country’s 300m minority population. As chief minister of Gujarat state, Modi was a firebrand Hindutva campaigner. In 2002, anti-Muslim riots in his state killed at least 1,000 people, resulting in the future prime minister becoming an international pariah who was banned from entering the US.
In response, Modi presented himself as an outsider being attacked by elites: a refrain that would become a central part of his political messaging, that he was constantly being targeted by the English-speaking media out of Delhi.
When popular disgust at corruption scandals plaguing the previous Congress government boiled over into street protests in 2011, it provided the rightwing populist leader a national springboard. His mastery of political theatre, and finger on the pulse of Indians, has now secured him the strongest mandate of any leader in decades.
Michael Safi in Delhi
Rushdie, Pamuk and Atwood were joined by 260 other writers, journalists, artists, academics and activists, along with PEN America, English PEN, and PEN International, expressing their “grave concern” in a letter to Modi about the move. They are calling for the Indian government to reconsider and “ensure that Aatish Taseer has access to his childhood home and family, and that other writers are not similarly targeted”.
”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,” say the writers, who also include Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Don DeLillo, John Coetzee, Anita Desai, Louise Erdrich, Amitav Ghosh, Edna O’Brien and Gloria Steinem.
“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,” it continues.
Last week, India’s home ministry claimed that Taseer had “concealed the fact that his late father was of Pakistani origin”. Taseer was brought up by his mother, the prominent Indian journalist Tavleen Singh, and did not meet his father until he was 21, an experience he wrote about in a book and his journalism.
“I never had any problems with my citizenship until after the Time piece was written,” Taseer told the Guardian. “There have been a number of times where my father’s Pakistani nationality has been as clear as day.”
Salman Taseer was the governor of Pakistan’s Punjab province, until his assassination in 2011 for opposing the country’s blasphemy laws.
In another tweet, India’s home ministry also claimed Taseer had not asserted his right to appeal, which Taseer said was untrue.
“My work is so immersed in Indian life so there is a real pain as a writer, not being able to ever be in contact with this material again,” he added. “And the other kind of pain is very personal. My mother who is 70 lives there. My grandmother who raised me lives there and she is 90 next year. Even if I take this to court, it is unlikely I will ever be able to see her again and for me that is the hardest part of all.”