As I sit down to write this, I still find it hard to believe that a prime minister whom I have openly supported for more than five years has allowed his government to exile my son. When the notice arrived from the home ministry, three months ago, asking Aatish to explain why his status as an Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) should not be revoked on the grounds that he had not revealed that his father was Pakistani, my first reaction was to call the home minister.
I thought there was some misunderstanding and wanted to clear it up. I wanted to show him a document in my possession that shows that when I brought Aatish to live in India in 1982 as his sole legal guardian, he was given permission till the age of 18.
His father’s name is on the affidavit I signed. When he turned 18, I tried to apply for another indefinite visa and was advised by the officials to get a PIO card instead. This I did and nobody asked me if his father was Pakistani. In any case, this was irrelevant since neither Aatish nor I were in touch with his father. I thought if I explained all this to the home minister, he would be supportive.
My calls to the home minister were ignored. So I then tried to call Hiren Joshi who, as the prime minister’s man in charge of the media, has an obligation to at least return the calls of a journalist. He refused to come on the phone. I wrote him several e-mails.
They were also ignored. It was then that I realised that somebody very high up wanted revenge on Aatish. This had been a niggling fear at the back of my mind ever since he wrote that article in Time magazine that appeared on the cover with a distorted sketch of Narendra Modi and the words, “Divider in Chief”.
I remember telling Aatish, then, that the article was inaccurate and ill-timed because this was in the last week of the Lok Sabha campaign and there were clear indications to me that Modi would be winning a second term. The title of the piece was offensive but the content should have offended Rahul Gandhi more than Modi because in it the then Congress President was described as “an unteachable mediocrity”.
In any case, it was only after this article appeared that the plot to exile my son began to unfold. Modi’s troll army on Twitter went ballistic and it was not long before Aatish was being described not just as a Pakistani but as an ISI agent and a jihadist.
The inevitable happened yesterday when Twitter was used to inform Aatish that he was no longer entitled to an OCI card because he had “lied” about his father’s nationality. The truth is that neither he nor I have ever lied about it.
Salmaan Taseer’s mother was English and as far as I know, Salmaan had a British passport since as a Pakistani he is allowed dual nationality. Aatish was born in London in 1980 and British law at the time allowed him to become a full British citizen.
We got him a British passport because of the hope that it would make it easier for him to go between India and Pakistan. My relationship with Salmaan ended badly soon after and I brought Aatish back to India. He did not meet his father till he was an adult.
Bringing him home to India as a baby made my family less disapproving of my “mistake”. Financially, the only support I had was the job that MJ Akbar gave me in The Telegraph as soon as I returned home and told him I needed work. What I earned was not enough to live on. My mother helped by paying the rent of my barsati in Golf Links.
And, my sister and my friend, Vasundhara Raje, helped financially whenever I was too broke to get through the month. Luckily, my sister’s twins are only two years older than Aatish, so there was a regular supply of clothes. And, as I wrote in my book, Durbar, the only really nice clothes Aatish had as a child came from Sonia Gandhi. We were friends then and she helped, as did my other friends, in whatever way they could. But, grateful as I am to all those who helped me through those difficult years, I have to say that I would not advise any woman to become a single mother.
To return, though, to the exile that Aatish now faces, I have to say that I am truly horrified that this was done without my even being given a hearing. Of course, as the BJP’s Twitter trolls tell me gleefully, I could go to court.
But, I am not sure that I can afford to spend the next 10 years fighting a legal battle against the mighty Indian state. Even as I write these words, my heart goes out to those people whom the home minister calls “termites” who may actually be Indian “termites” but will probably spend the rest of their lives in detention centres because if I cannot afford a legal battle, how can they.
Let me say as clearly as possible that I believe what has happened to Aatish is not just wrong but evil, just as what is happening to the desperately poor people who are running around trying to prove their Indian citizenship is evil and wrong. The damage done to India’s image as the world’s largest democracy is incalculable.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 9, 2019 under the title ‘Sending my son to exile’. The writer is contributing editor, The Indian Express.