Silencing critics in the diaspora

Indian embassies and consulates are being increasingly tasked with monitoring and gagging those who critique the Modi government

Image for representational purpose only
Image for representational purpose only

Vijayta Lalwani

On a cold November morning in 2022, London-based writer and activist Amrit Wilson received a letter, delivered to her doorstep. Sent by the high commission of India in London, it accused the 82-year-old of involvement in ‘multiple anti-India activities’ and ‘detrimental propaganda’ against the Indian government, ‘inimical to the interests of the sovereignty and integrity of India’.

The notice did not provide instances or supply proof. Born in Kolkata, Wilson came to London in 1961 as a 21-year-old PhD student and stayed on. She acquired British citizenship in 2009 and made yearly visits to her home in Delhi and to Berhampore Girls’ College in Murshidabad, West Bengal, founded by her parents in 1946.

“The charges are completely absurd,” said Wilson, a member of the South Asia Solidarity Group, a UK-based ‘anti-imperialist, anti-racist’ collective. “I have never endangered Indian sovereignty. I am a proud Indian who stands with Indian people.” She sent her response in December 2022, denying the allegations.

Another letter arrived in March 2023 which said her response was ‘bereft of plausible explanation’, declared her OCI (Overseas Citizenship of India) status cancelled and directed her to surrender her OCI card. In May 2023, she filed a writ petition in the Delhi High Court challenging the cancellation. Her petition is listed for hearing on 26 February 2024.

In November 2020, Ashok Swain, professor of peace and conflict studies at Uppsala University in Sweden, received a show cause notice from the Indian consulate in Stockholm, which accused him of ‘indulging in inflammatory speeches’ and ‘anti-India activities’.

Swain, 58, responded the same month, asking for specific instances, and requested the embassy to withdraw the notice so that he could visit his ailing mother in Odisha. Over a year later, the embassy said his response was ‘unsatisfactory’. A fourparagraph long order, dated February 2022, cancelled his OCI card.

That year, Swain challenged the government’s order in the Delhi High Court. In July 2023, the court quashed the order and gave the Union government three weeks to ‘pass a detailed order’, which he received on 30 July 2023 from the Indian embassy in Stockholm.

It found Swain guilty of ‘hurting religious sentiments, spreading hatred propaganda and creating rift on religion and attempting to destabilise the social fabric of India’; as well as damaging ‘India’s image and institutions at international level’.

Swain challenged the Centre’s second cancellation order in September 2023. The case was last heard on 7 February, when the government requested the court for permission to produce ‘classified’ inputs from security agencies in a sealed envelope. The next hearing is on 7 May. 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.

“The weaponisation of the Indian immigration system is one of the main strategies used to silence Indians and diaspora members,” said Viswanath. “People are being denied the chance to visit their loved ones or go back home just because of their political opinions.”

Blacklisted for supporting the farmers’ protest

In January 2023, an Indian-origin British resident’s visa application was declined twice. He received a call from an embassy official in Birmingham, who told him he was perceived to be a ‘mastermind’. “I said, mastermind of what?”

The 30-year-old British-Sikh runs a family restaurant and engages in charity work for the Sikh community in the UK. During the meeting called in February 2023, the embassy official repeatedly questioned his support of the farmers’ protest and probed his views on Khalistan. He was also asked about the future plans of Sikh charities that remained supportive of the movement.

“Even if they do espouse for Khalistan, what threat does an organisation with virtually no money and no members, pose to the State of India?” he countered. “I told them to put themselves in my shoes. Would this make me feel more Indian or less Indian? What is going on?”

Not all whose OCI status has been cancelled live abroad

In January 2024, the Union home ministry sent a show cause notice to French journalist and OCI status holder Vanessa Dougnac on the grounds that her reportage created a ‘biased negative perception of India’.

Dougnac, a resident of India for 22 years, denied the allegations, and has since left the country she had made her home. Others, such as Kannada 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 against a Karnataka High Court judge presiding over a case related to the hijab ban for students and for comments on Hindutva.

In June 2022, the Foreigners Regional Registration Office, Bengaluru, cited ‘derogatory remarks’ and ‘promoting ill will, hatred and disharmony against particular community’ among the reasons to cancel his OCI status. He responded within the 15 days given, but his OCI was cancelled in March 2023.

The government stated: ‘OCI cardholders are foreigners and citizens of another country, they cannot claim Right to Free Speech and Movement under the Article 19 of the Indian Constitution (which guarantees free speech).’

In April 2023, the court stayed Ahimsa’s OCI cancellation but ordered him to “delete tweets that are against judiciary and matters that are sub-judice”. Ahimsa did so.

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. Over 4.5 million people across the world are overseas citizens of India.

Data released by the Union home ministry in response to an RTI query filed by Article 14 in June 2023 revealed that the BJP government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi cancelled at least 102 OCI cards between 2014 and May 2023. Many in the diaspora were hesitant to speak, fearing repercussions from the Indian government and its consulates.

Interviews revealed a pattern of punitive action for criticising Prime Minister Narendra 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.

Government’s power to cancel OCI

The Union government cited, as justification, the citizenship law’s section 7D, introduced along with other aspects such as registration, rights and renunciation of the OCI card.

Section 7D states that OCI cards can be cancelled if they are obtained by fraud; if the cardholder ‘showed disaffection to the Constitution’, assisted an enemy during war, faced imprisonment; or when it was necessary in the interests of India’s sovereignty, integrity and security.

A challenge was launched in the Supreme Court by a group of 80 OCI cardholders in April 2021 questioning its Constitutional validity and the arbitrary powers it gives to the Union government to revoke OCI status.

In December 2023, the Washington Post reported how an organisation called the Disinfo Lab, run by an Indian intelligence officer, published dossiers on Modi’s critics abroad being allegedly funded to undermine India.

In a flow chart published on X 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. “My experience of being falsely labelled a ‘Soros agent’ is part of a larger pattern where the Indian government actively intimidates its critics abroad,” said Viswanath, who featured in the chart.

“This is transnational repression,” said US-based Raqib Hameed Naik, an independent journalist who runs Hindutva Watch and India Hate Lab, set up to track religious violence and hate speech in the country. On 16 January 2023, the Modi government had the Hindutva Watch X account blocked in India.

Around 26 January, its website was blocked. Since moving to the US in 2020, Naik, 29, has kept a diary to mark phone calls and summons from various government authorities.

He counted at least 14 instances over the past three years, with the most recent being a phone call to his father on 17 December 2023 by a man who identified himself as Jammu and Kashmir police official Ghulam Mohammad Malik.

Malik asked Naik’s father for his American address and took the phone numbers of his mother and three siblings. “The objective of the whole exercise is to put fear in your mind,” said Naik, adding that he had complained to and met FBI agents in October 2023 after receiving repeated death threats.

(Vijayta Lalwani covers issues related to human rights and political violence. The full report can be found on

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