India Blacklists Critics Abroad, Including Citizens

On a cold November morning in 2022, writer and activist Amrit Wilson picked up a letter that arrived at the doorstep of her home in London, UK. The letter, from the high commission of India in London, accused the eighty-two-year-old of “multiple anti-India activities” that were “inimical to the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India.” The notice did not provide instances or supply proof of such involvement but threatened her overseas citizen of India status. The OCI was created in 2005—under the Citizenship Act, 1955—to allow foreign citizens of Indian origin or foreigners married to Indian citizens to enter India without a visa, reside, work, and hold property, among other benefits. The letter gave Wilson fifteen days to explain why her OCI status, granted to her in 2017, should not be cancelled.

Born in Kolkata, Wilson had come to London in 1961 as a twenty-one-year-old student and stayed on, becoming an active voice on issues of racism and labour rights pertaining to South Asian women. She acquired British citizenship in 2009 and made yearly visits to her home in Delhi and to the state of West Bengal.

Wilson sent her response in December 2022, denying the allegations. She did not hear back for three months, until another letter arrived in March. It said her response was unsatisfactory, declared that her OCI status was cancelled, and directed her to surrender her OCI card.

“I was shocked,” she told Article 14 on a January evening in 2024 at her home in London, barely able to stand for more than a few minutes.

In May 2023, Wilson filed a petition in the Delhi High Court, challenging the cancellation. In an affidavit filed in August, the Indian government said the allegations against her were based on inputs, received from the ministry of external affairs and security agencies, that were classified and could not be divulged. It also cited information available in the public domain, including two tweets and two retweets by Wilson and an article she had written.

In August 2019, the Indian government had abrogated Article 370 of the Constitution that bestowed special status on Jammu and Kashmir, India’s only Muslim-majority state. In doing so, it had also divided up the state into two centrally administered union territories, stripping it of its autonomy. One of Wilson’s tweets, from 2020, was connected to the launch of a report marking a year since the controversial move. The article annexed was an opinion piece she had written, “Modi’s War against India’s Farmers,” discussing the year-long farmers’ agitation against three laws Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government had passed in 2020. The government appears to consider both as examples of “detrimental propaganda” against it.

At the time of this story’s publication, Wilson’s petition was pending in the Delhi High Court.

Over 4.5 million people across the world are overseas citizens of India, and data released by the Indian ministry of home affairs, in response to an Article 14 query filed in June 2023 under the Right to Information Act (RTI), 2005, revealed that the Modi government cancelled 102 OCI cards between 2014 and May 2023.

At least two others who spoke to Article 14 narrated how their OCI status had been cancelled, effectively ending their ability to return to their country of origin. Three people of Indian origin were blacklisted for tweets against Hindu nationalism and voicing support for protests by farmers between 2020 and 2021. Many in the diaspora were hesitant to speak for this story, fearing repercussions from the Indian government and its consulates. Interviews with those who did speak revealed a pattern of punitive action for criticizing Modi, his government, or its policies, with little scope for appeal, save a stray court decision if they chose to pursue that expensive, arduous route. Some of those whose OCI cards were cancelled lived in India, mostly foreign citizens married to Indians. The government largely ignored responses to its show-cause notices, going ahead with cancellations anyway.

Article 14 sought comment from the home ministry, which oversees the programme, on the process followed in cancelling the cards. There was no response by the time of this story’s publication.

In its response to the RTI request, the Indian government cited as justification the citizenship law’s section 7D, which states the card can be cancelled if it is obtained by fraud or if the cardholder “showed disaffection to the Constitution,” assisted an enemy during war, faced imprisonment, or it was necessary to cancel the card in the interests of the sovereignty, integrity, and security of India.

A challenge to section 7D was launched in the Supreme Court of India in April 2021 by a group of eighty overseas citizens of India who questioned its constitutional validity and the arbitrary powers it gives the government. The move to challenge the section came after the home ministry introduced a notification in March 2021 categorizing OCIs as “foreign nationals” and imposed new restrictions, such as requiring a permit to conduct research, mountaineering, missionary, or journalistic activities or to visit any area in India notified as protected.

A brochure issued in July 2021 on the OCI website says that if the status is cancelled for any of the reasons stated, the person would also be blacklisted, preventing their entry into India. The brochure does not make any mention of an appeal.

The OCI status of Christine Mehta, a researcher with the advocacy group Amnesty International India, was revoked in 2014. Mehta, an American citizen, was deported after her two-year research study reporting on alleged human rights violations by security forces in Jammu and Kashmir. In 2019, journalist and British citizen Aatish Taseer, who wrote a profile critical of Modi in Time magazine, received an order cancelling his OCI status because he had allegedly concealed his father’s Pakistani origin. In 2016, the union government cancelled the OCI status and blacklisted the entry of Indian American doctor Christo Philip for alleged evangelical activity. Three years later, the Delhi High Court restored his OCI status and said the cancellation went against the secular values of the Constitution.

Others alleged the OCI cancellations were punitive actions against those in the Indian diaspora who were critical of the Modi government’s policies. “As the Indian government closes space for dissent in India, it is now looking to silence those outside of India’s borders,” said Sunita Viswanath of Hindus for Human Rights, a US-based advocacy group.

In November 2020, Ashok Swain, a professor of peace and conflict studies at Uppsala University in Sweden, received a show-cause notice from the Indian embassy in Stockholm, accusing him of indulging in inflammatory speeches and anti-India activities. Fifty-eight-year-old Swain responded to the notice the same month, asking for specific instances of the alleged speeches and requesting the withdrawal of the notice so he could visit his ailing mother in the state of Odisha. Over a year later, the embassy said his response was unsatisfactory. A four-paragraph order, dated February 2022, cancelled his OCI card.

That year, Swain challenged the government’s cancellation order in the Delhi High Court. In July 2023, the court quashed the order, pointing out that it did not provide any reason for cancelling Swain’s OCI status. The court gave the government three weeks to pass a detailed order outlining the reasons for exercising powers under section 7D.

On July 30, the Indian embassy in Stockholm sent Swain a more detailed cancellation order, which listed more allegations but without specifics. Swain, it said, was found hurting religious sentiments, spreading hateful propaganda, and creating religious rifts and attempting to destabilize the social fabric of India. The order cited his Twitter activity and accused him of spreading propaganda through his writing and speeches. The government further accused him of damaging India’s image and that of its institutions at an international level. The order added that foreign nationals like Swain, who is a citizen of Sweden, were not entitled to the fundamental rights of free speech and expression under Indian laws.

Not all those whose OCI status has been cancelled live abroad. In January 2024, the home ministry sent a show-cause notice to French journalist and OCI holder Vanessa Dougnac because her reportage allegedly created a biased and negative perception of India. Dougnac, a resident of India for twenty-two years, denied the allegations. Some others, such as actor Chetan Ahimsa, a US citizen, have faced police action for being vocal on local issues. Ahimsa was arrested twice between 2022 and 2023 following remarks on X on sensitive topics. He was granted bail in both cases. But in June 2022, the Foreigners Regional Registration Office in Bengaluru accused him of promoting ill will, hatred, and disharmony and cited these as reasons to cancel his OCI status. He responded within the fifteen days he was given, but his OCI was cancelled in March 2023.

Ahimsa approached the Karnataka High Court the next month. The Indian government, in its statement to the court, argued that every country has a sovereign right to refuse entry into its territory to any individual whom it may consider undesirable. It said that OCI cardholders are foreigners and the citizens of another country and that they cannot claim right to free speech and movement under the Indian Constitution. The court stayed Ahimsa’s OCI cancellation but ordered him to delete his tweets that were against the judiciary and on matters that were sub-judice.

Some of those interviewed described how they came to be persona non grata for the Indian government. Swain said he had lived in Sweden since the 1990s, engaging with Indian diplomatic officials and students. In 2015, he had arranged for then Indian president Pranab Mukherjee to speak at the university where he teaches. The change in the government’s attitude began in 2016, he said, especially after he refused the Indian embassy’s request to organize an event around International Yoga Day at his university and wrote an opinion piece in a Swedish newspaper calling on the Swedish government to recognize the disarmament of human rights and religious intolerance in India.

“Officials [in the embassy] told me that some Indians complained against me,” he said. “They were alleging that I was working against the Indian government.” Despite repeated follow-ups, the Indian embassy in Sweden did not respond to queries Article 14 sent via email.

In 2019, anthropologist Angana Chatterji, an Indian citizen living in the US, testified before the US House Foreign Affairs Committee on the status of human rights in Kashmir. Before her testimony, Chatterji, who was also part of a coalition of activists and academics that had campaigned to revoke Modi’s US visa back in 2005, received a call from someone she did not wish to identify, allegedly warning her, at the behest of Indian authorities, that they may come after her citizenship. Cautioned by her lawyers against possible detention, Chatterji has avoided travelling home for a number of years.

The inability to return, she said, is “profoundly isolating” and makes her academic research challenging. “My work hinges on the ability to show up to bear witness,” she said. “It is an affliction to do this from afar.”

The repercussions for the government’s critics abroad also come in the form of online misinformation campaigns. In December 2023, the Washington Post reported how an organization called the Disinfo Lab, publishing dossiers on how Modi’s critics abroad were allegedly funded to undermine India, was run by an Indian intelligence officer. In a flow chart published on Twitter in February 2023, Disinfo Lab used unsubstantiated claims to link billionaire and philanthropist George Soros to various Indian American activists, academics, and human rights groups.

The fears of critics have also intensified since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, in September 2023, accused India of orchestrating the assassination of Sikh activist Hardeep Singh Nijjar on Canadian soil.

“This is transnational repression,” said US-based Raqib Hameed Naik, an independent journalist who runs Hindutva Watch and India Hate Lab, projects tracking religious violence and hate speech in the country. On January 16, the Modi government had the Hindutva Watch X account blocked in India, followed by its website around January 26, Naik said.

Since moving to the US in 2020, twenty-nine-year-old Naik has kept a diary to mark all the instances when he or his parents in India have received phone calls and summons from various government authorities. He has counted at least fourteen instances over the past three years, with the most recent being a phone call to his father on December 17, 2023, from a man who identified himself as Jammu and Kashmir police official Ghulam Mohammad Malik. According to Naik, Malik asked his father about his American address and took down the phone numbers of his mother and three siblings.

Article 14 contacted Malik, who said he had called Naik’s father to conduct a verification. “I just wanted to ask where he is, what his family does . . . is he married or not and where,” he said, refusing to further comment on whether or not it had anything to do with Naik’s work as a journalist.

Aside from cancelling OCI cards, the government has blacklisted some Indian-origin residents of the US and UK and barred them from entering the country. In August 2022, thirty-year-old journalist and US citizen Angad Singh was deported from New Delhi without an explanation. Singh, an OCI cardholder and then a senior producer at Vice News, had come to meet his grandparents in the city of Indore. Indian immigration officials asked him a few general questions on what he did and why he was visiting the country and then sent him back to the US on another flight scheduled a few hours later.

By the time he reached his home in New York after travelling for nearly forty hours, he was flooded with notifications on social media and was being trolled as news of his deportation spread. Singh said he did not know why he had been deported. He sent emails and letters to the Indian consulate in New York. They were not answered, he said.

Later that year, he filed a plea at the Delhi High Court, after which the Indian government, in a February 2023 affidavit, said he was blacklisted in March 2021 as the consulate in New York had recommended it. The affidavit pointed to a twenty-nine-minute 2020 documentary, titled India Burning, an investigation into how Hindu supremacism may undermine secularism and relegate India’s Muslims to being second-class citizens. The affidavit stated that the documentary presented a negative view of India’s secular credentials. “He misrepresented facts in his visa application filed for obtaining a journalist visa in the year 2020 and has indulged in blatant anti-national propaganda to defame the country,” it said.

Singh denied the allegations. “Where are these claims of blatant anti-national propaganda coming from?” he said. “There is nothing incorrect about the reporting I’ve done in any capacity.”

Content creator and New Zealand citizen Karl Rock, who is married to an Indian, found out he was blacklisted in October 2020, when he applied for a new Indian visa at the embassy in Dubai, according to a post on his website on July 9, 2021. Embassy officials informed him of the entry ban verbally, according to Rock. Some users on social media speculated that the reason was a video he had posted about participating in protests against the Citizenship Amendment Act of 2019. The video is no longer available on his page. Unidentified home ministry officials told the Times of India that Rock had violated the terms of his visa because he was found doing business activities on a tourist visa.

In July 2021, Rock’s wife petitioned the Delhi High Court, and his name was taken off the blacklist, according to a post on November 21, 2023. It is unclear how his name was removed, but he could return to India. Rock did not respond to questions Article 14 sent through the contact form on his website.

In January 2023, the Indian visa application of a British Sikh man residing in the UK was denied twice. He travelled to India regularly and applied again, but this time directly to the Indian consulate in Birmingham. Shortly after, he received a call from a consulate official who did not identify himself and suggested a meeting in February 2023. When the man went to the consulate, the official told him that he had allegedly been blacklisted by the Indian government. During the meeting, the official repeatedly questioned the man for supporting the farmers’ protest and asked him about his views on Khalistan—the separatist movement, to carve a homeland for Sikhs out of the Punjab region, that was at its peak in the 1980s and continues to draw support from sections of the Sikh diaspora. The meeting lasted for a few hours, and the official asked him to make a document consisting of tweets and articles where he appeared “neutral” to show authorities he was “pro-India,” the man said.

He prepared the document and sent it to the official over WhatsApp. Article 14 viewed the document consisting of screenshots of tweets from the man’s X feed as well as the WhatsApp exchanges between them. However, the interrogations did not end, as the man was called to the Birmingham consulate at least five times throughout 2023. Conversations with officials veered further away from understanding why he was blacklisted to the proposition of him working alongside Indian authorities in the UK, he alleged. In February 2023, two consulate officials asked him to start an organization that would work to be a “broad representation of Sikhs in the UK,” the man alleged. Despite repeated follow-ups, the Birmingham consulate did not respond to queries Article 14 sent over email.

Experts say due process to bar a person from entering India is not clear. They point to the Foreigners Order, 1948, issued under the legal aegis of the Foreigners Act, 1946. A blacklist is maintained by the foreigners division of the home ministry, the Indian Express reported in 2018. It contains the names of those Indian citizens and foreigners against whom a “look out circular” has been issued. Such a circular must be issued by home ministry officials of a certain rank or on the orders of criminal courts. While the names on the blacklist are not publicly revealed, it first came to attention in the 1990s, the Express reported.

In 2018, the Delhi High Court ordered the ministry of external affairs to inform OCI cardholders and foreigners in advance of being blacklisted and explain why they were denied entry. The order was put on hold by another bench of the same court the following year. While OCI cardholders receive notices before cancellation, it is evident that those who are blacklisted do not.

In June 2023, the two officials at the Birmingham consulate allegedly asked the British Sikh man to fetch the post-mortem report of a Sikh activist who had died in London that summer, which he refused to do. He was repeatedly asked about the future plans of Sikh charities in the UK that remained supportive of the Khalistan movement. The last time he met them was in October 2023, when officials told him to write directly to the Indian high commission in London to plead his case. “They just dangled the carrot,” the man said. “I told them to put yourself in my shoes. Would this make me feel more Indian or less? You feel othered.”

Vijayta Lalwani

Vijayta Lalwani is an award-winning Indian journalist who reports on politics, conflict, and labour rights.

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