Don’t harass Aatish: Intolerance towards dissent and free speech will hurt India’s global image   

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s notion of leveraging diasporic talent for national purposes is not only an excellent idea, he has worked hard to achieve this – his sellout performance at the Houston ‘Howdy Modi’ event being only the latest instance in this regard. However certain actions by his own government undermine the PM’s energetic efforts, such as the move to revoke diasporic writer Aatish Taseer’s OCI status soon after he wrote an article critical of Modi in an international newsmagazine. In a significant move 260 prominent authors, journalists, activists and artistes – including Nobel prize winners – have signed a letter urging the PM to review the drastic decision.   

They affirm that denying access to the country to writers of both foreign and Indian origin casts a chill on public discourse and flies in the face of India’s traditions of free and open debate. This is hard to argue against. It may well be that Western media’s coverage of India has more than a tinge of ethnocentrism; someone could also argue that such coverage would have been noticeably better if, all else being equal, India’s economic performance had been good. Nevertheless, there’s genuine unease about recent developments which have led many to wonder – and not just abroad – whether India is departing from its democratic and secular roots (political detentions in Kashmir, or the religious bias in the Citizenship Bill, are only two examples).   

In this context being intolerant of dissent – even if the latter comes across as unfair – damages India’s soft power as a vibrant democracy. Aatish’s OCI status must be restored to send out a signal to both the diaspora and international community that India remains true to its democratic ideals. If New Delhi cannot achieve the latter, then instead of isolating Pakistan it will itself stand isolated and lose control of the international narrative.  

This piece appeared as an editorial opinion in the print edition of The Times of India.

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