Comiti Paul Edward, a French journalist and filmmaker, was arrested in Srinagar on 9 December 2017, a day before the World Human Rights day. The reason given by the local police for arresting him is that he had violated the visa norms for foreign nationals in Kashmir. He was kept in the Kothibagh Police station for 4 nights and 3 days before he was granted bail on 12 Dec. His passport has been confiscated along with some of his other belongings by the Jammu and Kashmir Police, including his camera. All along he has been treated well by the police, according to his own account, a privilege scarcely reserved for the local inmates in prisons. (White skin comes along with its own innate benefits. Locals do not have any ‘white’ embassy to support them). He was held in violation of the Section 14B of the Foreigners Act. Comiti Paul has a business visa up to 22 Dec 2018. He was supposed to be produced in court on 18 Dec. but the judge was not there. Soon in the next hearing there will be some decision about him.
The French journalist was commissioned by the TV channel M6 to do a documentary on the Kashmir conflict. The channel is described as the third most watched channel in the French-speaking world. According to him he was on a recce trip before actually working with his own team which had not arrived yet. However, the police believe that he had started participating in protests, interviewing separatists and pellet victims, all activities which fell outside the norms of the business visa. A cursory look at the business visa leaves enough scope to understand that one can probably do the kind of activities that the French Journalist was carrying out. It is also true that getting a journalists’ visa to conflict zones is not easy. Therefore, people who are interested in reporting or filming the happenings in the conflict normally do it under tourist or business visas.
To his credit, the French journalist and his lawyer are arguing that he had not yet started to film and record. He was merely researching, and paying the people who he worked with, with due receipts etc. The police on the other hand, while respectfully dealing with foreigners, tails them to their doorsteps. Because fewer things are more dangerous than the western ears and eyes on the goings-on in Kashmir. Hence a tab is a must on their activities. In any case, Kashmir is poison-pit of spy agencies. Anything suspicious is fraught with risk.
BEYOND THE SURFACE
Both the French journalist and the police are not saying things as they should be. Because the first disposable item in a conflict zone is truth. Obviously, from what can gather from the circumstances, Comiti Paul had come to film and record, and he could not do so with the help of a tourist visa. He wished to record and tell the world all aspects of the conflict, not just the one supporting the separatists. The police are hiding more than revealing when they state that his filming and recording would have created law and order issue or that he would have “blown up” the local condition, “as is the wont with the media” as the Inspector General of Police put it while talking about the detention of Comiti Paul. Even the claim of the technical violation of visa norms is a ruse. The fact is that dangerous gaze of the international attention (read western) which was sought to be invited on the condition in Kashmir is an anathema to the local administration. And this is not the first time that a foreigner has been arrested.
On September 23/24 2011 David Barsamian, an Armenian-American Radio broadcaster, and founder and director of Alternative Radio-Boulder was deported from Indira Gandhi International airport. He had done programs on Kashmir and was critical of the human rights violations in Kashmir. He was scheduled to travel to Kashmir and report on the unmarked graves. However, that could not happen, and again the reason given was the violation of the visa norms. Barsamian’s visit was expected a year after the bloody summer of 2010 in which over a hundred young boys had died. Both Comiti Paul and Barsamian stressed their freedom in going to places ravaged by conflict. They reported on the gross violations of human rights in such places as Libya, Iraq and Afghanistan yet there was no censure on their activities. In the case of Barsamian, the problem is worse because he is a great fan of so many things Indian, like its classical music and the great diversity the country has. To him it is a betrayal of some trust in democratic India. The denial of entry into India of Richard Shapiro in November 2010 is another link in the same chain. The reason was his being husband of Angana P. Chatterjee, who is well-known about her outspokenness about conflict areas, especially Kashmir.
What comes out from this is that the state is willing to perpetuate only one narrative, which is official and authorised. All other narratives have to be subservient to the official discourse. There is sanction to only one camera and that is the official standardised camera with the right to film and disseminate. The images going around the world have to issue out of the “proper” camera at the “proper” time for the “proper” audience. On the face of it when internet is freely available and the social networking sites with easy connectivity across the globe, this censure of the French journalist looks naïve, if not funny. Or maybe the format and the sanctity and faith accorded to the western camera unnerved the local police, and seized his passport and camera. The story is probably no different on the other side of the Line of Control, under the control of Pakistani authorities. The people visiting Pakistan Administered Kashmir have shadows of intelligence agencies after them, noting their movements. We get signs of this in Kashmir on a Knife Edge, a personal account mixing facts with fiction by the Australian writer Martina A. Nicolls. Her visit to the place came in the backdrop of September 11. Although the level of surveillance is not of the same level and intensity as on this side of the Line of Control however there is no doubt that the authorities are wary of exit of information without official sanction and filtration.
In all probability, Comiti Paul will be asked to pack his bags, and shoot a documentary elsewhere, on some other subject. What does such a decision do to the image of Indian democracy? A democracy, true in letter and spirit, is not afraid of differences in opinion, carries in its stride a rainbow of perspectives, allows space to debate and discuss in the spirit of the much-hailed “Argumentative Indian,” respects dissent and is not scared of a documentary being made by a journalist. Now with the censure on Comiti Paul more people know about him and his aim than might have if he had made a documentary, and walked on to a new project. The more a nation is open to contrasting opinions the more it redounds to its credit and enhances its democratic credentials in the comity of nations.