Jean Dreze (Left), Sudha Bharadwaj (Center) and Aatish Taseer (Right)

Much has been written about author and journalist Aatish Taseer being stripped of his “Indian citizenship,” and most of it is probably true. The government of India once conferred him the exalted status of a Overseas Citizen of India (OCI), a magic card that allows persons of Indian origin, but foreign citizenship, to visit and stay in India without a visa.

It was a scheme that started under a government led by the Bharatiya Janata Party, when Atal Bihari Vajpayee was the prime minister. In Taseer’s case, it was taken away from him by another BJP-led government, with Narendra Modi as the prime minister. Ostensibly, Taseer’s cover story for Time magazine, calling Modi a “Divider-in-Chief,” just before the general elections that were held in April-May this year led to the revocation of his OCI status.

There is no doubt that the government of India acted in a petty and vindictive manner. It also indulged in subterfuge that is shameful. Taseer’s mother Tavleen Singh is an Indian. She met his father, Salman Taseer, a British-Pakistani politician, but they never married. After Aatish was born, she moved to India and became his sole legal guardian. Aatish never met his father until he was an adult and that relationship, by his admission, lasted for a short period. Salman Taseer, a defender of civil rights and a member of the Pakistan Peoples Party, was assassinated by his security guard when he took on blasphemy laws.

Worse, the Indian government’s decision also reinforced patriarchy as the only metric to measure the nationality of a person. The fact that his mother is an Indian and sole guardian was ignored in the latest decision.

A question of identity

But did people stop to think about Taseer and his nationality that grants him citizenship?

He was by birth a British citizen. He was never an Indian national. An OCI card is basically a liberal visa regime. It allows its holder to visit India and stay there indefinitely, buy land and enjoy certain privileges that other immigrants normally wouldn’t be eligible for.

But nothing prevented him from choosing to become an Indian national, if he so believed in this nation and its destiny. He chose to hold on to his British passport and also celebrated his US Green Card when he was awarded one in 2016. “As a South Asian male, with a Muslim name, I had hardly ever before entered the US without being carted off to secondary screening,” he wrote in The Wall Street Journal after he entered the US.

But if his columns after being stripped of his OCI card are anything to go by, it is not clear what prevented him from adding his shoulder to the wheel of building a progressive, liberal and modern India that is built on its constitutional principles. Instead, the advantages of a British passport and the lure of an American existence seemed to have weighed more than the dark-blue Indian passport and its privileges and disadvantages.

For the many elites in India who were shocked by this venal act of the Indian government, it reveals another shortcoming. This speaks of a twofold erosion of the values that the elites, many of whom identify as “liberals.” There is no doubt about their commitment to liberal values. But on occasion, they tend to fight for causes that reflect their privilege, rather than the concerns of those who lack it.

First, they seek to send the liberal order in India into battles that are unnecessary and diversionary. There are far greater challenges to freedom and constitutional guarantees in India currently. But columnists across the globe spent bytes and reams of paper fighting for a cause that isn’t moot to India right now.

Second, the outrage failed to turn an introspective lens on Aatish Taseer, as well as those of us who were shocked at the Indian government’s decision.

But it is a fact that Taseer led a privileged life by Indian standards. In New York, he shall continue to live a privileged life by American standards. The British passport opens up far more visa-free ports than an Indian passport ever could. In a globalized system, these are privileges that should not be easily dismissed.

But this does not mean that that Aatish’s case is not shocking just because he is privileged. The principles of fair play and justice matter and apply equally to everyone. What the Indian government did to his OCI status is terrible and his privilege does not lessen the government’s perfidy.

But there are those in India who will continue to struggle for fundamental rights that are guaranteed by the constitution, but not granted in spirit or substance.

The unprivileged struggle

There are those like Professor Jean Drèze, who gave up his Belgian citizenship nearly 20 years ago and became an Indian. A man who did his PhD in some of the most difficult disciplines of economics decided to become an Indian. Legend has it that when he made his choice, the Belgian Embassy in India called him in an attempt to dissuade him. Perhaps it suspected that some day he might get the Nobel Prize for his contribution to economics. But Drèze, who lived in a Delhi slum for years, taught at the prestigious Delhi School of Economics before moving to the state of Jharkhand to teach there.

He has spent the better of his life in India and now is an Indian. He wears it proudly, and has spent his adult life making this country better for its most marginalized. He was the moving force behind the national rural employment guarantee scheme that became an act of Parliament. He also pushed through the Right to Food Act with his colleagues to ensure a certain dignity to millions of India’s poorest.

Like him. Sudha Bharadwaj, an American citizen, came back to India after leaving her Ivy League education and embraced Indian citizenship. Living in a small town in the middle of India, she became a lawyer to take up pro bono cases of the poorest who faced the might of the state. She is currently in jail for an allegation that she was part of a plot against the Indian state, one that many believe was trumped up to prevent her from defending the human rights of the weakest and poorest.

In India, citizenship and nationality are at a dangerous crossroads. The National Register for Citizens, a Supreme Court-monitored program, is set to make 1.9 million people stateless. India will declare them illegal and throw them into detention zones, reminiscent of Nazi concentration camps. Similarly, the 100 days of lockdown in Kashmir is testimony to how brutal the state can be, as it moves ahead to shape a new citizenry and nationalism.

Those are the causes and citizens we must defend, celebrate, ally and aid.

Aatish Taseer will go on to write his columns in The Guardian, Time and The New Yorker. Drèze will continue to cycle on the streets of Ranchi and Dantewada, fighting for every Indian’s right to livelihood, dignity and sustenance.

In a country where civil liberties are being eroded every day, it is important to choose our causes well. They can not become a reflection of our privileges.

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