Dead Men Talking – I The Indian state can silence the living, not the voice of the silent

On September 23, 2011, at about three in the morning, within hours of his arrival at the New Delhi airport, the US radio journalist David Barsamian was deported. This dangerous man, who produces independent, free-to-air programmes for public radio, has been visiting India for 40 years, doing dangerous things like learning Urdu and playing the sitar. He has published book-length interviews with Edward Said, Noam Chomsky, Howard Zinn, Ejaz Ahmed and Tariq Ali. (He even makes an appearance as a young, bellbottom-wearing interviewer in Peter Wintonick’s documentary film on Noam Chomsky and Edward S. Herman’s Manufacturing Consent.) On his more recent trips to India he has done a series of radio interviews with activists, academics, filmmakers, journalists and writers (including myself). Barsamian’s work has taken him to Turkey, Iran, Syria, Lebanon and Pakistan. He has never been deported from any of these countries.

So why does the world’s largest democracy fear this lone, sitar-playing, Urdu-speaking, left-leaning radio producer? Here is how Barsamian himself explains it: "It’s all about Kashmir. I’ve done work on Jharkand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Narmada dams, farmer suicides, the Gujarat pogrom and the Binayak Sen case. But it’s Kashmir that is at the heart of the Indian state’s concerns. The official narrative must not be contested."

News reports about his deportation quoted official "sources" as saying that Barsamian had "violated his visa norms during his visit in 2009-10 by indulging in professional work while holding a tourist visa". Visa norms in India are an interesting peephole into the government’s concerns and predilections. Taking cover under the shabby old banner of the War on Terror, the Union home ministry has decreed that scholars and academics invited for conferences or seminars require security clearance before they will be given visas. Corporate executives and businessmen do not. So somebody who wants to invest in a dam or build a steel plant or buy a bauxite mine is not considered a security hazard, whereas a scholar who might wish to participate in a seminar about, say displacement or communalism or rising malnutrition in a globalised economy, is. Foreign terrorists with bad intentions have probably guessed by now that they are better off wearing Prada suits and pretending they want to buy a mine than wearing old corduroys and saying they want to attend a seminar. (Some would argue that mine-buyers in Prada suits are the real terrorists.)

David Barsamian did not travel to India to buy a mine or to attend a conference. He just came to talk to people. The complaint against him, according to "official sources", is that he had reported on events in Jammu and Kashmir during his last visit to India and that these reports were "not based on facts". Remember Barsamian is not a reporter, he’s a man who has conversations with people, mostly dissidents, about the societies in which they live. Is it illegal for tourists to talk to people in the countries they visit? Would it be illegal for me to travel to the US or Europe and write about the people I met, even if my writing was "not based on facts"? Who decides which "facts" are correct and which are not? Would Barsamian have been deported if the conversations he recorded had been in praise of the impressive turnouts in Kashmir’s elections, instead of about what life is like in the densest military occupation in the world? (Six lakh actively deployed armed personnel for a population of 10 million people.) Or if they had been about the army’s rescue operations in the 2005 earthquake instead of about the massive unarmed uprisings that took place on three consecutive summers? (And which received no round-the-clock media attention, and no one thought to call "the Kashmir Spring").
David Barsamian is not the first person to be deported over the Indian government’s sensitivities over Kashmir. Professor Richard Shapiro, an anthropologist from San Francisco, was deported from Delhi airport in November 2010 without being given any reason.

Most of us believe it was the government’s way of punishing his partner, Angana Chatterji, a co-convenor of the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice, which first brought international attention to the existence of unmarked mass graves in Kashmir. May Aquino, from the Asian Federation against Involuntary Disappearances (AFAD), Manila, was scheduled to visit Kashmir in September 2011. She was deported from the Delhi airport. Earlier this year, on May 28, the outspoken Indian democratic rights activist Gautam Navlakha was deported to Delhi from Srinagar airport.

(Farooq Abdullah, the former chief minister of Kashmir, justified the deportation, saying that writers like Navlakha and myself had no business entering Kashmir, because "Kashmir is not for burning"-whatever that means.) Kashmir is in the process of being isolated, cut off from the outside world by two concentric rings of border patrols-in Delhi as well as Srinagar-as though it’s already a free country with its own visa regime. Within its borders, of course, it’s open season for the government and the army. The art of controlling Kashmiri journalists and ordinary people with a deadly combination of bribes, threats, blackmail and a whole spectrum of unutterable, carefully crafted cruelties has evolved into an art form.

While the government goes about trying to silence the living, the dead have begun to speak up. It was insensitive of Barsamian to plan a trip to Kashmir just when the state human rights commission was finally shamed into officially acknowledging the existence of 2,700 unmarked graves from three districts in Kashmir. Reports of thousands of other graves are pouring in from other districts. It is insensitive of the unmarked graves to embarrass the Government of India just when India’s record is due for review before the UN Human Rights Council.
–(To be concluded)
(Courtesy: Outlook)