In an unconventional move on Thursday, the Union Home Ministry took to Twitter to announce that New York-based author Aatish Taseer’s Overseas Citizen of India card had been revoked. The government claimed that this was because Taseer had concealed the fact that his biological father was of Pakistani origin, which disqualifies him from holding the status.
Launched in 2005, the Overseas Citizen of India card permits foreign citizens of Indian origin to stay in India indefinitely without having to follow registration requirements. Taseer is a British citizen.
However, the rules prohibit any person with Pakistani or Bangladeshi lineage from obtaining this status. According to the Section 7D of the Citizenship Act of 1955, no person whose parents, grandparents or great grandparents have been citizens of Pakistan, Bangladesh or other country that the Central government specifies is eligible for registration as an Overseas Citizen of India.
The Union Home Ministry also claimed that Taseer had failed to respond to a notice seeking a explanation from him, something that the author denied. He said his reply to the government had stated that his parents had never been legally married and that his mother, the journalist Tavleen Singh, was his sole guardian. Besides, he said, his biological father Salman Taseer was a British citizen.
The government’s move against the author comes shortly after Taseer wrote a scathing piece about the Narendra Modi regime in Time magazine in the run-up to the Lok Sabha polls. The article had described Prime Minister Modi as “ India’s divider in chief”.
There are several problems with the way the government has acted in this case. The timing of the notice just months after the Time magazine article has led to claims that this could be an act of vendetta against the author. Besides, it points to the anachronistic nature of the OCI scheme, which is biased against single mothers and fails to take into account the nature of relationship between an applicant’s parents in deciding eligibility for overseas citizenship status.
The action against Taseer has also served to focus attention on a new clause that the government is trying to introduce through an amendment to the Citizenship Act, which provides the administration sweeping powers to cancel overseas citizenship status for even frivolous acts that are deemed illegal.
According to a report in The Hindu, Aatish Taseer grew up in New Delhi and studied in Kodaikanal in Tamil Nadu. He now lives before moving to New York. He had received a Person of Indian origin card in 2000, which was later converted to a Overseas Citizen of India card. His father Salman Taseer was governor of the Punjab province in Pakistan when he was assassinated by his own bodyguard in 2011. Salman Taseer, according to Aatish Taseer, held a British passport. His parents had only a very brief relationship, he said in a piece in Time on Friday.
It is curious that Salman Taseer’s Pakistani identity came to the attention of the Indian government only after Aatish Taseer published his Time article about Narendra Modi. “The story of my parents’ brief, passionate relationship had in part been the subject of my first book, Stranger to History, which was published in 2009 and widely reviewed in India,” Taseer wrote on Friday. “I was living in India at the time, and at no time was my legal status ever questioned or challenged by the government...”
The Indian consulate in New York, where Taseer lives, sent the author its first notice about the matter only on August 13.
Aatish Taseer’s case is certainly exceptional and raises questions about the insensitivity of the administration in implementing the law. Taseer has made it clear that he had no relationship with his biological father and that his mother was his only guardian. To disregard this explanation and act against him points to patriarchal foundations of the law, where a single mother’s status has been conveniently erased under the garb of enforcing the letter of the law.
It is true that the provisions of the Citizenship Act derive their logic from the Partition of India right after independence. Without Section 7d, which delineates the disqualification rules, almost all Pakistanis could claim Overseas Citizenship of India as they are of Indian origin. But these laws have to take individual context into account and cannot be blind to a case like Taseer’s.
What is more disconcerting is the fact that the government is now attempting to amend the Citizenship Act in a manner that will give it arbitrary powers to cancel Overseas Citizenship status. The Citizenship Amendment Bill, which the Modi government has shown great eagerness to implement, could result in more such cancellations.
The Citizenship Amendment Bill was passed in the Lok Sabha on January 8 but lapsed as it was not tabled in the Rajya Sabha before the parliamentary elections. In September, Union Home Minister Amit Shah made a reference to the Bill and reiterated the government’s commitment to deport all undocumented immigrants from India.
A little-discussed provision of the Bill makes an important addition to the rules that govern the Overseas Citizenship cards. Through the introduction of Section 7Da, the government wants power to cancel the cards of any person who violates any law in force in India.
Even a frivolous case would put an Overseas Citizen of India in danger of her status being cancelled.
If the government’s actions in the Aatish Taseer case is anything to go by, the new clause in the Citizenship Bill will only heighten fears of arbitrary cancellations.