From Economic and Political Weekly: “Shooting the Messenger”
It is extraordinary that a country that claims to be a democracy still resorts to deporting people it suspects will disseminate information it would prefer to suppress. The manner in which David Barsamian, the award-winning American journalist and founder-director of Alternative Radio, was sent back from New Delhi airport on 23 September is one more illustration of the Government of India’s undemocratic mindset. It is also an antiquated mindset, for in an age when information is freely available and moves across borders with such ease, it makes no sense for government agencies to keep journalists out of the country.
Barsamian has been an outspoken critic of American foreign policy, and has criticised the international arms industry and the role of corporate media in obscuring reality. Fluent in Urdu and Hindi, he has also commented critically on India’s handling of the Kashmir issue as well as on other controversies such as adivasi struggles against mining companies. He has visited Kashmir thrice in the last 15 years and, predictably, his interviews with the ordinary people there on prevailing conditions did not make him a favourite with the authorities. Scheduled to report on the 2,730 unmarked graves found by the State Human Rights Commission (SHRC) of Jammu and Kashmir recently, Barsamian landed in Delhi with a valid visa on 23 September. He never left the Indira Gandhi International Airport. Within two hours, he was on a plane back to the United States, deported for “misusing” his tourist visa.
The SHRC’s report as well as the earlier International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Indian-Administered Kashmir (IPTK) report on unidentified and unmarked graves in Kashmir have already been widely reported in India and outside. Barsamian had planned to interview the families of disappeared persons who have long suspected that their kin might be in these graves. Why did the presence of one more journalist reporting on this issue prompt such an arbitrary action? Barsamian is
convinced that India did not want its official narrative on Kashmir to be questioned and hence his deportation.
Shutting the door on the messenger rather than dealing with the bad news or at least engaging with him/her continues to be the favoured response of the central and state governments when it comes to the unpalatable truths about the situation in Kashmir. In November last year, American academic Richard Shapiro was denied entry by immigration authorities at New Delhi and has yet to be told why they did so. Shapiro is married to Angana Chatterji, co-convener of the IPTK, who has also been subjected to vituperative criticism and threats for her “anti-India” activities. The paranoia about allowing critics of government policies access to Kashmir is not restricted to foreign scholars and journalists but also covers Indians. In May this year, journalist and convener of the IPTK Gautam Navlakha (who for many years was editorial consultant to EPW and continues to be associated with the journal) was not allowed to leave Srinagar airport on his visit to Kashmir and was sent back to Delhi. The reason cited was that his presence could create a disturbance to peace and tranquillity. The IPTK’s co-convener Pravez Imroz has been denied a passport presumably because the government is apprehensive of the information he could present outside India.
Although the Jammu and Kashmir government’s unjustifiable and arbitrary actions are proof enough of its attitude towards criticism, a press release by the National Conference (the state’s ruling party) in June this year provides another example. According to the statement, “the government should not allow people like Ram Jethmalani to enter the state during the summers because they do not want a solution to the Kashmir issue, instead they come here to misguide the people, hoodwink them and derail the process of peace in Jammu & Kashmir”. It went on to castigate its other critics who are bent on vitiating the peaceful atmosphere in the state. The statement illustrates the self-delusion under which the state government continues to operate.
You can deport and expel critics, you can shut down the internet, you can restrict access to information, but the truth will come out. That the Jammu and Kashmir government and the security apparatus that actually rules the state refuse to acknowledge this reality is increasingly evident. The real stumbling block in working towards a resolution of the issues facing people in that state is precisely this inability to acknowledge facts – irrespective of their source. The SHRC report was, in fact, the first important step towards confirming what was already established by non-governmental groups. By preventing people like Barsamian from visiting the state, the government has once again taken a giant step backwards, where freedom of expression and access to information have been sacrificed in the name of the specious argument of “security”.