In an exclusive first-person account to The Hindu, Christine Mehta recalls how she was forced to leave India ostensibly for her scathing report on the draconian AFSPA in Jammu and Kashmir

On Friday, November 8, 2014, as I was leaving my house in Bengaluru with a friend, three police officers approached us. I knew why they were there. The night before, I had received a mysterious phone call from the Foreigner Regional Registration Office (FRRO) in Bengaluru. The woman official on the phone told me to report to the FRRO the next day, a holiday. I sought reasons. She refused, insisting instead that I report to the FRRO urgently. An American citizen of Indian origin, I had been living in Bengaluru for about three years, working on a valid visa as a researcher for Amnesty International India (AII). I told her that I would consult with my employer and revert to the FRRO on Monday.

The police officers who had come for me wanted me to go with them to a police station. When I asked for a reason they said it was “confidential”. “You need to come with us, and then we will escort you,” one of them said. I was told that a complaint had been filed against me by the FRRO, and that the officer was required to escort me to the office. He claimed he didn’t know the reasons for the complaint or its contents.

I refused to go with him. I told him I was not legally obligated to accompany him to a police station or to the FRRO without a legitimate reason or an arrest warrant. Frustrated, one of the officers called and spoke to someone rapidly in Kannada for a few minutes. He then handed over his phone to me. The man on the other end of the line repeated what the officer had told me. “Madam, you are required to come to the police station,” he said. “Then the police will escort you to the FRRO.” I again insisted on being given a reason. I mentioned to him my phone conversation with the FRRO official the previous night. “I will look into the matter and seek an appointment with you on Monday,” I said. It seemed to mollify him. The police officers left.

A little later, I received a call from Shashikumar Velath, the deputy director of AII. He claimed to have spoken to his sources at the Ministry of Home Affairs (MHA) and told me that the FRRO officials would present me with a list of ‘visa violations’. He advised me to prepare myself against intimidation. “Tell them you’ve been doing research in Jammu and Kashmir in a transparent manner for the past two years. They may even present you with a notice telling you to leave India,” he said. “Don’t worry, my sources tell me it’s just for show.”

I had been working as a researcher and campaigner for AII in Bengaluru since 2012. I had obtained a Person of Indian Origin (PIO) card so that AII would be able to hire me without the complications associated with business and employment visas.

At the time, I was unaware of any restrictions on working as a PIO. I was allowed to work and live in India without a visa for 15 years. As of September 30, 2014, the Overseas Citizen of India (OCI) card — an identical immigration card — and the PIO card were merged. Both cards grant any person whose parents or grandparents emigrated from India permission to live and work in India without a visa for life. India’s progressive visa policy makes living and working in India easy for most second and third generation Indians living abroad, except for those working in environmental and human rights.

Work on AFSPA

In 2014, I was on the cusp of publishing a report on the abuses committed under the controversial Armed Forces Special Powers Act in Jammu and Kashmir. Despite the need for reform amongst the ranks, the Indian government remains extremely sensitive to the image of its Army and other security forces. The state terms anyone who raises questions about the conduct of the security forces as “anti-national”.

There had been signs of official unease with my work in Jammu and Kashmir. In early 2013, an officer from the MHA had visited our office after I returned from a trip to the State. He claimed that he needed to conduct a background check because a Pakistani journalist with suspected ties to terrorist groups had listed me as a reference while applying for an Indian visa. I had not been in touch with any Pakistani journalist.

When he discovered that I was a PIO, and that my grandfather had migrated from India to the U.S., he stopped questioning me. He advised me to be wary of what Kashmiris tell me as they “have a special interest” in tarnishing India’s image.

In October 2014, Ananth Guruswamy, then the chief executive of AII, told me that the government had informed him that it would no longer tolerate my research in Jammu and Kashmir. The conversation sparked a discussion about my future in the organisation.

Notice to leave

This brings us back to the Monday when I had an appointment with the FRRO. Mohan Mundkar, the Director of Operations at AII, accompanied me to the headquarters. I was summoned into a room, but Mr. Mundkar was not allowed inside. Three officers waited for me; they did not give me their names or ranks. A young woman officer asked to see my OCI card; I gave it to her. A second officer, a man, handed me a paper titled “Leave India Notice”, which ordered me to leave India immediately. I looked for a reason in the notice, but there was none. Neither was there an option to appeal.

As I had done before, I asked the officials for a reason. They said they didn’t know; they had only been following instructions. “You need to leave in 24 hours if possible,” one officer said. “The sooner you leave the better. There must have been some mix-up with your paperwork. I’m sure you can sort it out in the U.S.”

“There had been signs of official unease with my work on AFSPA in Jammu and Kashmir. An MHA official claimed that he had to do a background check on me, as a journalist with suspected ties to terrorist groups had listed me as a reference while applying for an Indian visa”

I was panic-stricken, but I smiled. “I have been living here for four years. I have my work, home, and friends here. And OCI is a lifetime status,” I said. “I can’t leave in 24 hours.” He replied sympathetically but firmly: “There is nothing we can do. Maybe we can give you a few days?”

Before I left, I asked the woman officer for my OCI card, but she refused to give it to me saying it was “cancelled”. She added: “I have to keep this. You are no longer an OCI. You have to leave quickly as you have no legal status to stay here.”

On my way back, I realised that the chance that I might be deported because of my research was likelier than ever before. Later in the afternoon, Mr. Velath called again. “You should prepare to leave in the time you’ve bargained for: ten days. That’s our plan A,” he told me. “We thought they would give you a reprieve, but that looks unlikely. They want to make an example of you.”

Although no official reasons for my deportation were provided, I could take a guess. In February 2012, when Amnesty International decided to move me to a research position, we discovered a restrictive clause listed on India’s Bureau of Immigration website stating that OCI and PIO were prohibited from conducting “research, missionary or mountaineering activities without the prior permission of the Government of India.” As I was being hired to research abuse of power and human rights in Jammu and Kashmir, there was a debate about the consequences I might face, including deportation and loss of my overseas citizenship status.

There are hundreds of PIO and OCI cardholders who have been working as journalists, development workers, and researchers in India without any problems. The provision seemed outdated. The AII management was confident that the United Progressive Alliance government wouldn’t use the little-known and apparently rarely used provision against me. It decided that attempting to apply for permission would only draw unnecessary attention to my work, and invite the government to deny permission outright.

I was 23 then and had graduated in journalism from a university in New York. I had reported a little on human rights issues in Latin America. Being hired as a researcher for Amnesty International was an exciting opportunity. I didn’t ask too many questions when I was hired.

“India’s progressive visa policy makes living and working in the country easy for most second and third generation Indians living abroad, except for those working in environmental and human rights”

After my deportation, I discovered that the restriction on research is also encompassed in the separate research visa issued by the Indian government for researchers and scholars conducting research projects in India. According to the research visa requirements, even OCI and PIO cardholders are required to request permission under the research visa guidelines, and can be issued permission to conduct research for up to three years with a possibility for extension. If the researchers’ sponsoring organisation is a non-governmental one, then it has to undergo a background check from the MHA. However, these specifics are not listed anywhere in the PIO or OCI guidelines; only under the research visa guidelines. Thus, few PIO or OCI cardholders working for NGOs go through the process to obtain permission, and the government seems to have never before revoked an OCI status or deported anyone as a penalty.

The U.S. Consulate in Chennai told me that given the historical precedence, it is highly unlikely that I will be able to return to India in the near future.

Current climate for NGOs

I left India on the evening of November 22, 2014. Six months have passed since I was deported, but I have refrained from telling my story publicly. Nor have I seriously considered a challenge in court — until now. Would speaking out about my deportation eliminate the possibility of the Indian government ever allowing my return to the country? Would my organisation be targeted if I spoke out, undermining the work that it is struggling to continue to do in the current climate?

Six months after my deportation, the Narendra Modi government continues to muzzle NGOs. Even organisations such as AII have struggled to address questions that are critical of the government, knowing well that doing so might threaten the survival of their operations. Richard Verma, the U.S. ambassador to India, was right to be concerned about the “chilling effect” on India’s NGOs and activists. Like many individuals and organisations, I stayed silent, hoping this might earn me another chance to publish or continue my work. Yesterday, my silence was broken. Amnesty International published the report I spent nearly two years working on. It was time for me to speak out.

My idea of India is a country of thriving debate, intellect, and diversity; a country that should be able to confront its darkest aspects and rectify its mistakes. There are many stories like mine. There are thousands who have faced worse, including imprisonment and torture for their work. My hope is that India won’t be indifferent to the stories told and the questions raised about the tactics the Indian government uses to suppress dissent. If individuals are targeted for no recognisable crimes, then this diminishes the democratic essence of a country that prides itself as being the world’s largest.

(Christine Mehta was a researcher with Amnesty International India.)