Silencing Dissent: Modi’s Crackdown on Overseas Critics
Maria Tavernini 25 March 2024

On January 18, India’s Ministry of Home Affairs notified French journalist Vanessa Dougnac of its intention to revoke her permanent residency status, claiming that she carried out journalistic activities in the country without permission. It also asserted that her “malicious” work had created a “biased negative perception” of India, reported the Print.

Her case has brought renewed public attention to the practice of Overseas Citizenship of India cancelation as a means of suppressing dissenting voices. Overseas Citizenship of India (OCI) is an immigration status that allows foreigners of Indian origin to live and work in India and it acts as a form of dual nationality that India does not recognize as such. Until March 2021, journalists with OCI status were free to work in India.

That changed when the ministry notified that they would require special permission to engage in activities such as journalism, research, missionary work, mountaineering, and others. This is the case of Dougnac, a veteran journalist married to an Indian citizen who has reported from India for more than 20 years and refutes all accusations. A growing number of foreign journalists, including those with OCIs, are facing growing challenges in working in India in the last few years, but the row with OCI holders began even earlier than 2021.

The Bharatiya Janata Party-led government has canceled more than 100 Overseas Citizen of India cards in the past 10 years, according to Article 14, which has filed a Right to Information (RTI) query with the Ministry of Home Affairs. When someone’s OCI status is canceled, they have to leave the country and apply for a regular visa, but many former OCI holders have been “blacklisted” as the Narendra Modi-led government is increasingly trying to silence critics in the diaspora.

In response to Article 14’s query, the ministry cited a section of the Citizenship Act that says OCI cards can be canceled if they are obtained through fraud, if the holder shows disaffection to the Constitution, or if it is necessary in the “interests of sovereignty, integrity, and security of India”.

“The authorities seem intent on expanding politically motivated repression against Indian activists and academics at home to foreign citizens of Indian origin beyond India’s borders”, denounced Elaine Pearson, Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

In November 2020, Ashok Swain, a professor of peace and conflict studies at Uppsala University in Sweden, received a letter from the Indian embassy saying he was banned from India. Swain challenged the government’s order in the Delhi High Court. In July 2023, the court quashed the order, saying that the Ministry of Home Affairs had not provided any evidence to revoke Swain’s OCI. In August 2023, the Indian Embassy in Stockholm sent Swain a more detailed cancelation order. “I’m the only person whose OCI card has been canceled twice,” he commented.

The case was last heard in February 2023, when the government claimed it had received “secret” inputs from security agencies. The ministry said it had revoked the Sweden-based professor’s OCI because he had been indulging in “illegal activities inimical to the interests of the sovereignty, integrity, and security of India.” The next hearing is scheduled for May, but Swain’s lawyer cannot argue the case as the envelope is sealed.

“They are just postponing the decision and making my life difficult. They want to make an example out of my case because I’m the first Indian-born academic whose OCI has been canceled and banned from India,” he explains to Reset DOC over the phone. “All this has deeply affected my personal and professional life: I haven’t been able to take care of my aging mother, my family, or my properties. I have refrained from working with several academics in India because I do not want to endanger them and get them into trouble.”

Swain was allegedly targeted because of his strong social media presence; he also wrote regularly on Indian newspapers and was followed by many politicians, including Rahul Gandhi and other opposition politicians. His X handle was withheld in India and then was hacked. “It is well known that they went after Christians and Muslims, but I’m an upper caste Hindu– it was thought that people from my background would not get this kind of treatment – so they wanted to create fear among other academics,” he argues.

“I’ve been following Gujarat politics since the 90s, I know what Modi is capable of – he is a Hindu supremacist, a fundamentalist, very ideologically committed – since he became PM, dissent has never been tolerated,” Swain continues. There are many notable examples of academics, writers, and journalists in the diaspora being targeted for expressing negative views on the increasingly majoritarian and authoritarian policies of the BJP government.

In 2019, Aatish Taseer, a renewed British-born writer of Indian origin whose case became emblematic, was stripped of his OCI. The ministry cited technical grounds for the revocation (he allegedly hid his late father’s Pakistani origin, though he talk about it in one of his novels), but it came right after Taseer’s Time cover story on Modi, titled “India’s divider in Chief”. Many underlined the timely coincidence of his OCI revocation, seeing the move as retaliation for the author’s sharp, surgical words in the international magazine right in the middle of the 2019 elections.

“The impact on my personal life has been catastrophic. My grandmother, who raised me, died a couple of weeks ago without seeing me for the past five years. My mother, now in her mid-70s, is barely able to see me a few days a year, and only after considerable cost and hardship. My link to the land where I have lived for about 30 out of my 43 years has been severed,” he said to Reset DOC, “The Modi government has achieved its aim of sending me into exile, and even after five years, they are unrelenting in their vindictiveness. There is simply no way back.”

He argues that because of the geopolitical situation, India has been given a free pass by the international community. “They are determined to use it to silence any of their critics, whether domestic or international. People with OCIs pose a special threat, because we both knew India and thought we were out of reach. Well, the Modi government has found a way to reach us, and it has sent a chill through the diaspora, many of whom I work with in the United States,” he said.

It is not only OCI holders to be targeted among Modi’s critics in the diaspora. Angana Chatterji is an Indian citizen and a scholar at the University of California, Berkeley. As an anthropologist, she began to focus on Hindu nationalism after the 2002 Gujarat pogrom, and advocated for the revocation of Narendra Modi’s US visa. “As I shifted my work to focus on Hindu nationalist mobilizations in India and state violence, the targeting began. I received hate mail, I was harassed in the US, and I was surrounded by a Hindu right-wing mob in India, and received rape treats, death treats,” she tells Reset DOC.

Later, she focused on unknown and mass graves in Indian-administered Kashmir, where she and colleagues Parvez Imroz and Khurram Parvez (detained since November 2021) set up a people’s tribunal to investigate the Indian state’s actions related to occupation, human rights violations and mass atrocities. Threats escalated, her partner was deported, and she was stopped at immigration every time she entered or left India.

A few years ago, her lawyer advised her not to go home because of the level of threats she was receiving. “It is extremely daunting to do my work remotely while ensuring that the integrity of the research is not compromised by my forced separation from India. Family and work life have been quite challenging. I am living through a series of dislocations.”

Nevertheless, she feels it is imperative to continue speaking out. “It is dangerous to forget history. Today’s situation is a culmination of repeated failures to hold to account the violations of the past,” Chatterji claims. “The call for a Hindu/nationalist state since 2014 has been accompanied by the repudiation of civil, political, livelihood and human rights, and escalated political violence, xenophobia, and majoritarianism.” She argues that after Modi re-election in 2019, the pattern of silencing dissent is reaching a crescendo.

“India’s democracy was already precarious, conflicted before 2014. Today, India is an illiberal state with global aspirations, focused on neutralizing dissent not only within its borders but also outside,” she comments. “Desirous of its markets and presumed role in containing China, India’s global allies have failed to react to what is ongoing within, even as the BJP is set to win the 2024 elections. India is a country with deep economic, security, and sociopolitical problems. Until the international community realizes this, the Modi government will continue to be emboldened.”



Cover photo: representative image of the OCI designed on Canva (Wikimedia Commons).

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