More than 260 writers, journalists, artists and activists have urged the Indian government to review its decision to revoke writer and journalist Aatish Taseer’s Overseas Citizenship of India card.

The letter said that the Indian government was likely retaliating against Taseer for his critical coverage of Prime Minister Narendra Modi during the Lok Sabha elections. They were referring to Taseer’s cover story in Time magazine in May describing Modi as India’s “divider in chief”.

The signatories joined free speech organisations PEN America, English PEN, and PEN International to the Indian government against its decision to express their concern. The list includes authors Salman Rushdie, Orhan Pamuk, Amitav Ghosh and Margaret Atwood, cognitive psychologist Steven Pinker, sitar player Anoushka Shankar and journalist Christiane Amanpour.

The Ministry of Home Affairs had said Taseer’s OCI status was revoked because he “concealed the fact that his late father was of Pakistani origin” in his application for this status.

The signatories said that in his application for OCI status, Taseer had listed his father’s name, and added that he had written extensively about his heritage and his past in many books and articles.

“If an individual’s OCI status is revoked, they may be placed on a blacklist preventing their future entry into India,” the signatories said after detailing the circumstances that led to the OCI status being revoked. “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.”

They asked the Indian government to follow the “spirit of the OCI regulations which are designed to provide status and connection to their roots and family to citizens of other countries with Indian heritage...and do not discriminate against single mothers”.

Taseer was born after his mother, Indian columnist Tavleen Singh, had a brief relationship with Pakistani politician Salman Taseer, when they both lived in the United Kingdom. They were never married. Aatish Taseer is a British national.

“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,” the signatories wrote. “We write to respectfully request that the Indian government review this decision, to ensure that Aatish Taseer has access to his childhood home and family, and that other writers are not similarly targeted.”

Karin Deutsch Karlekar, the director of PEN America’s Free Expression at Risk Program, said it is “intolerable for the Indian government to hide behind the fig leaf of bureaucracy”. “Aatish has held his OCI status for many years and has always publicly disclosed his family’s background, which was never before an issue,” he said. “This is outright retaliation against a journalist who has ticked off an increasingly nationalistic and authoritarian prime minister. Let’s not pretend this is something else.”

Overseas Citizenship of India is an immigration status that allows foreigners of Indian origin to live and work in India indefinitely. This status is not available to applicants whose parents, grandparents or great-grandparents are Pakistani. Before the OCI scheme was launched in 2005, members of the diaspora could obtain Person of Indian Origin status. Aatish Taseer obtained Person of Indian Origin status in 2000 and received an OCI card in 2016.

Under the rules, Aatish Taseer could be banned from entering India after this. However, Taseer in a tweet disputed the Home Ministry’s claim that he had failed to reply to the notice. He said that instead of 21 days, the government gave him merely 24 hours to file a response.

PEN America, CPJ, Tavleen Singh’s criticism of government

Following the episode, PEN America and the Committee to Protect Journalists had criticised the government’s decision.

Aatish Taseer’s mother Tavleen Singh also lashed out at the government. Singh said what had happened to Taseer was “not just wrong but evil”. She compared it to the National Register of Citizens exercise in Assam that excluded more than 19 lakh people from the final list. She also alleged that the damage to India’s reputation as the world’s largest democracy was incalculable.

The columnist said she initially assumed that the Centre’s move was a misunderstanding, and tried to get in touch with the Ministry of Home Affairs. However, her repeated attempts to get in touch with the ministry or Hiren Joshi, the officer of special duty (communication and information technology) in the Prime Minister’s Office, were in vain. She said that is when she realised that “someone very high up” wanted revenge on her son.