David Barsamian, one of America’s most tireless and wide-ranging investigative journalists, has altered the independent media landscape. His weekly award-winning program Alternative Radio, now celebrating 30 years, is broadcast on more than 200 stations around the world. He has books with Noam Chomsky, Eqbal Ahmad, Howard Zinn, Tariq Ali, Richard Wolff, Arundhati Roy and Edward Said. His latest book of interviews with Noam Chomsky is Power Systems. His best-selling books with Chomsky have been translated into many languages across the world and he lectures on international affairs, imperialism, capitalism, U.S. foreign policy, propaganda, the media, the economic crisis and global rebellions.
On 23 September 2011, Barsamian was deported on arrival from New Delhi airport and put back on a flight at around 3 am. This was not his first visit to India. He first visited in 1966 and has returned many times since. The following year he became a disciple of Sitar Maestro Pt. Debu Chaudhuri. He has been to Kashmir multiple times. During his last trip he had visited Kashmir and did a series of interviews on local events. A year after his deportation, Barsamian wrote in The Kashmir Walla, “The uprising and resistance in Kashmir to Indian rule is one of the major news stories in the world yet it is underreported. The Indian state has been diligent in framing and manufacturing the news messages coming from Kashmir.”
It has been almost five years now and Barsamian still remains among the people who are barred to visit India. In this interview with The Kashmir Walla, Barsamian spoke to Shantanu Mehra last February during his visit to Beirut, Lebanon about students’ protests in India, Kashmir issue, Pakistan and journalism. The interview took place in the auditorium of the Haigazian University, Beirut.
Shantanu Mehra: You have had a long tradition of going to India and writing about India, you have learned sitar and you also speak Urdu but things finally changed in 2011 when you were banned from coming to India and immediately after that in an interview with Arundhati Roy you said, “It is all about Kashmir, I have done work in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal, Narmada Dams – I have written on farmer suicides and the Gujarat pogrom but it is Kashmir which is at the heart of Indian state’s concern, the official narrative must not be contested.” What is that concern according to you?
David Barsamian: India has constructed a certain image of itself, which it has been by the way very successfully exporting. In terms of propaganda, India has convinced most of the world that it is a peaceful country and I don’t want to disparage it completely but it is a normal state in many ways. It is at this moment committing major human rights violations in the North East, in Kashmir, and in the states that you mentioned. Delhi promotes an idyllic narrative of India where everybody is meditating, practicing Yoga, staying in Ashrams, playing and singing ragas, eating sumptuous vegetarian cuisine and they are non-violent. It’s the land of Buddha and Gandhi. They don’t want anything to disturb that tourist poster narrative that they go to great lengths and expense to export.
Kashmir and these other rebellions trouble that narrative and Kashmir and the North East are distinct from the other rebellions. I think these are movements for self-determination and independence that is quite different from what is going for example in Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand. There they want to replace the government in Delhi. They don’t want to leave the Indian union. Kashmir historically and for other cultural reasons strikes at the heart of the Hindu nationalist conception of what India is – Akhand Bharat, united and undivided India. So, anyone that rocks the boat and challenges the official story about what is actually going on is viewed as a threat. According to the Indian government most Kashmiris are happy. There are troublemakers coming from Pakistan who disturb them but they are content with their situation. That is the assertion but it is not supported by evidence that the Kashmiris love to be occupied by hundreds and thousands of Indian troops.
SM: Is that correct that just before being banned you reported about mass graves, which according to you led to you being banned from coming to India?
DB: I was there in February 2011 and at which point I spent some time with Khurram Parvez of the Jammu and Kashmir Coalition of Civil Society, a very distinguished and honorable man and a real hero. Read their well-documented 800-page report “Structures of Violence.” Information about the graves had already been coming out. There was an earlier report entitled “Buried Evidence” documenting thousands of graves all over the Valley. Many people had been disappeared by the Indian state. They are arrested and they never heard from them again. What has happen to them? Have aliens from Mars abducted them? It is a serious question. It is very painful for mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, nephews, nieces and friends not to know what has happened to their loved ones. At least have the information, okay they were killed in custody and they are buried here and to have those final burial rites is very important emotionally, culturally and spiritually as well. That has been denied to thousands of Kashmiri families.
When I returned to India and landed at IGIA on 23 September 2011, without any warning, with the same passport and same visa on which I had visited in February, I was told [that] I would not be allowed into the country. No reason was given; a piece of paper was waved at me and I was told. ‘You have to go back on the same plane you came in on.”
SM: Building on that Kashmir being at the heart of Indian state’s concern, last February at Jawahar Lal Nehru University [in New Delhi] there were protests commemorating, what students called, the judicial killings of Afzal Guru and Maqbool Butt. Finally the government responded in a sort of labeling those students as anti-nationals. So what according to you is this whole debate of nationalism and anti-nationalism vis-à-vis Kashmir issue?
DB: As we have seen in Lebanon, Syria, Canada, the US, and other parts of the world language is used with very specific intent and applied in very special circumstances. So today’s terrorist is tomorrow’s national hero. Just to give you one example, Nelson Mandela for years was on the US terrorist list and the African National Congress was labeled as a terrorist organization. After Mandela was released from prison, after 27 years, he became president of South Africa and he won the Nobel Peace Prize. Then Washington suddenly discovered he is not a terrorist. He is a great man someone who has promoted peace and helped to eliminate apartheid in South Africa. The hypocrisy is breathtaking.
So these terms anti-national [or] terrorist are used in a propagandistic way. Now, I don’t know the details of the Afzal Guru case [but] it doesn’t matter, there should be no capital punishment. How can India the land of ahimsa, non-violence, satyagraha, execute someone? The alleged crime occurred in December 2001, why did it take 12 or 13 years to come to the point where the state felt it had to execute him?
SM: Also when people talk about nationalism vis-à-vis Kashmir, especially in India, Pakistan seem to be the elephant in the room, that anything you say which is remotely pro-Pakistani you suddenly become anti-national. So, where do you place Pakistan in this debate?
DB: For Hindu nationalists, historically, Pakistan is a punching bag. It is there whenever they like to land a punch, feel macho. And of course Pakistan is in terrible situation. It is not a model to be emulated. It is riven by sectarian divisions, there are horrendous attacks on the Shia and other minorities. Pakistan has become a kind of automatic explanation for the Indian state whenever anything happens in Kashmir that they don’t like. So they say yeh Pakistani jihadi ya fauj ne kiya. It is the Pakistani army training, arming and sending these terrorists across the border. Actually if that is the case they are returning to their home. You see this with Israel also. Tel Aviv says, “Palestinian terrorists are invading our country.” No they are not invading your country. They are coming back to the country from which they had been evicted, from which they had been unjustly ousted. So, again propaganda has to be deconstructed and to see how it is being used for very specific reasons. Part of Kashmir is occupied by Pakistan, which use this issue for cynical reasons. It is a way for them to undermine India’s power. It is interesting to note the chronology: 1947 Kashmir, 1948 Palestine. In both instances, the British Empire completely F***ed up and left the ruins for the people to walk through and sort out.
SM: Since you mentioned propaganda and you have written extensively against the corporate media. How do you see the recent trial by media against the JNU students who were labeled as anti-national under the colonial sedition law? We have news channels which even aired doctored videos – how do you sort of put your own story in this, on one hand we have journalist like you who are banned from entering India and on other hand we have big corporate media who have literally converted studios into court rooms and giving verdicts.
DB: All those television anchors that you are specifically talking about are not journalists; they are presstitutes. They are practicing a form of presstitution. They are lap dogs with laptops. They are stenographers to power. They are also very rude. If you watch these programs they yell, scream, denounce people, make charges without any substance, without any documentation. So they are the judge and jury, they are electronic prosecutors. They declare the verdict. This is kind of a kangaroo court as we call it in US slang. They are all and everything. I think they are doing a terrible job. There have to be ways to go around this kind of corporate control of the media particularly the television channels in India, which are just full of sensationalist and lurid headlines and outrageous claims about leftists, anti-national elements and anti-Indian forces.
Overwhelmingly the corporate media approach is hyperbolic and inflammatory with all kinds of rhetoric about – we are a free and democratic country, we live next to a terrorist state like Pakistan – people here are free to speak but these students are abusing that freedom. No. They are not abusing it they are exercising it. Freedom of speech is not something where one can say, Oh today is Friday and I am going to wear my freedom of speech clothes but tomorrow is Saturday so I am not going to have freedom of speech. You cannot randomly apply something like this – if a state is truly democratic it has to be consistent and the laws must be equal for all. But for the large majority of Kashmiri Muslims that is not the case. They have been suppressed, they have been repressed, they continue to be occupied and their basic right to self-determination that is recognized by the United Nations is denied by Delhi. Self-determination is the right of any people. That is what the Palestinians are demanding and they are not getting it either. It is good to make connections. Delhi and Tel Aviv are moving to much closer bi-lateral relations particularly in the military and counter insurgency areas.
SM: How do you see the future of student mobilization in India and because of this massive crackdown? Any words of advice or solidarity?
DB: I hesitate to give advice but let me say a few basic things. To students: be courageous, don’t be afraid, be agile. In the words of boxing champion Muhammad Ali, “Float like a butterfly, sting like a bee.” Be skillful in your opposition and express your ideas through political discussions and talks, art, poetry, film, theatre, dance, and find the vulnerable spots in the power structure. Gramsci said, there are cracks in what looks like a monolith. Find those cracks and widen them with your creative energy. All states are hypocritical; there are no exceptions to that. United States is right at the top of the list Washington talks about freedom of speech as the foundation of democracy. But says nothing when there is repression by its allies such as Israel and India.
Martin Luther King Jr. who was assassinated in the United States on April 4th 1968, said it is always better to be standing up and resisting than being on your knees and begging. We don’t want to beg people in power by pleading: please help me I am so poor, I’m ghareeb, I’m so unworthy. No! Stand up for your rights and you will feel better. By doing so you assert your dignity and self-respect. That is so important. Solidarity is a critical element in movements for social and political change. Find kindred spirits and form bonds of friendship with them. Overcoming isolation is a key to activism
Shantanu Mehra holds a M.A. degree in Islamic Studies from the University of Melbourne and is at the moment a student of anthropology at the American University of Beirut.