In the international media, the murder of Pakistani journalist Saleem Shahzad raised crucial concerns about the intimidation and targeting of journalists and political activists by the ISI in Pakistan. However, the detention and deportation of human rights advocate Gautam Navlakha from Kashmir has barely been mentioned. As Vaclav Havel argues, it is often only death that makes a story. According to Havel, it is not merely brute force and violence, but rather subtle and insidious forms of coercion which enable an efficient system of oppression. He writes that ‘this remarkable absence of newsworthy stories is not an expression of social harmony, but the outward consequence of a dangerous and profound process: the destruction of “the story” altogether.’ The story of injustices and human rights abuses in Kashmir is one which advocates like Navlakha are eager to make the world aware of, and it is for this reason that such official measures are being taken to impede them.
On the 28th of May Gautam Navlakha, co-convener of the International People’s Tribunal on Human Rights and Justice in Kashmir (IPTK), was detained at Srinagar Airport, held for a day and then deported to Delhi. Officials justified the deportation under Section 144 of the Code of Criminal Procedure, laws focused on governing unlawful assemblies. With no further reason given for refusing Navlakha entry, the invocation of Section 144 suggests that authorities considered Navlakha’ presence to have to potential to motivate of some form of public unrest. In November 2010 American academic Professor Richard Shapiro, partner of IPTK convener Angana Chatterji was similarly denied a visa to India without reason or due process. While the prolonged detention of hard-line separatists leaders, however unjustified, has become an almost accepted commonplace occurrence, the deportation of a human rights and peace advocate such as Navlakha strikes a different and alarming chord. India is surely eager to avoid a continuation of the escalating violence of the last three summers. The unrest of 2010, which claimed over 120 lives, brought international attention to the excessive measures and lack of restraint employed by Indian security forces. Rather than addressing a critical situation, it seems the plan could be simply a change in tactics, exchanging force for a preemptive system of restriction and censorship, in order to project an image of stability and control in place of a more turbulent and disquieting reality.
Navlakha himself questioned ‘[i]f this is the response to an ordinary activist like me, one can very well imagine what the real situation in Kashmir must be like’, remarking on the apprehension felt by the Indian government and authorities in regards to how events would unfold in the Valley in the near future. After the censorship and restriction of the media exposed in 2010 and the claims of government surveillance targeting online social networking sites, getting a true account of ‘the real situation in Kashmir’ seems increasingly difficult. The deportation of Navlakha under section 144 makes a simple human rights activist seem a revolutionary. As Orwell famously stated, ‘During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.’ Indeed the world’s largest democracy increasingly resembles an Orwellian state, with the Information Technology Act enforcing that all form of communication and activity via phone or internet is open to government inspection and surveillance. In spite of this the revolution of new media has resulted in a boom of grassroots reporting in Kashmir, encouraged by the Hurriyat Conference as a form of online protest. Amateur video and photographic footage from camera phones posted to blogs and social networking sites bravely continues to provide unmediated and unreported coverage of the daily reality in the Valley, despite reports of authorities targeting such activity.
During the unrest of 2010 footage and reports from such grassroots sources became invaluable due to the media gag enforced. At the beginning of July, after mass demonstrations and mounting fatalities, at a time when genuine reports were most crucial, curfew passes were cancelled or not entertained in Srinagar and the media thus censored. Many press offices became makeshift living quarters for journalists unable to return home to their families for three to four days. Those who did attempt to cover the situation were intimidated by police and forced back into their offices. Many were beaten by security forces or had equipment confiscated, including Mark Magnier of the Los Angeles Times and senior journalist Riyaz Masroor of the BBC’s Urdu-language service. Local television stations were restricted with local news channels limited to 15 minutes broadcast and prohibited from rebroadcasting. The only footage that seemed to be allowed was of the army as it flag marched through the desolate city in a show of strength. On July 10th no newspapers were published in protest against the unjustified restrictions and censorship of media.
With such extreme efforts to censor coverage of the situation in Kashmir, the inevitable conclusion is that there is doubtlessly something to hide. The recent India Wikileaks Cables exposed the widespread torture by Indian police and security forces in Kashmir. The draconian Armed Forces Special Powers Act continues to be enforced. Navlakha’s claim that ‘The Indian government and the authorities are suffocating the people of Kashmir and their leaders’ is echoed in Chairman of Hurriyat Conference (G) Syed Geelani’s protest against the prolonged detention of separatist leaders. The Inspector General of Police S M Sahai has announced that 258 people had been detained under the Public Safety Act (PSA) in Kashmir between March and May 2011, with 175 currently incarcerated. Sahai also confirmed that 5,078 persons were detained for involvement in the 2010 unrest, although he claimed most have been released. Recently, Amnesty International has been waging a campaign against the PSA, successfully rallying for the release of Faizan Rafiq Hakeem, a minor detained without charge or trial in February 2011. Amnesty claims that at least 322 people have been detained under the act from January 2010 to September 2010 alone. Undoubtedly, there are many stories still left unheard, and restricting the access of outspoken advocates such as Navlakha seems a measure to maintain this silence. When these advocates continue to speak out, any act of questioning or opposition seems to be met immediately with charges of sedition.
In January 2011, Binayak Sen, a prominent paediatrician and human rights activist, was sentenced to life imprisonment on grounds of sedition. The Irish Times described the verdict as a ‘stain on India’s democratic credentials’. The 2010 conference in Delhi entitled ‘Azadi – the only way’ was interpreted by many in the national media as challenging the limits of democracy, Times Now Editor-in-Chief, Arnab Goswami, going so far as to suggest speakers at the event be immediately imprisoned on grounds of sedition under section 124 of the Indian penal code. Booker-Prize winner Arundhati Roy who spoke at the event, in the furore which followed, was indeed under threat of arrest on charges of sedition for simply stating that Kashmir had never been an integral part of India. Refusing to be intimidated, Roy along with Navlakha delivered the lecture ‘India’s War on People’ in Mumbai this June, where Roy explored the nature of State coercion and suppression and the consequential spectrum of resistance movements it motivates.
As a country with one of the most rapidly developing economies in the world, such rich diversity of culture and tradition as well as an intense sense of national spirit, enormous potential is jeopardized by such restrictive and repressive measures. The development of innovative, inspired and indeed democratic means of protest in places like Kashmir should be encouraged rather than stifled. As should political conferences which see the coming together of intellectuals and advocates from a spectrum of backgrounds giving voice to a new dialogue within the Kashmir movement, assessing the present and defining future aims in an articulate and composed manner. The new generation of Kashmiris who persist in peaceful and democratic means of protest rather than resorting to violence, who continue to pick up a stone instead of a gun, must not be further alienated through methods of intimidation or repression. Suppressing voices of opposition never silences them; it sparks intrigue and often affirms what is being denied. It makes the truth a revolution.
Caelainn Hogan is a freelance journalist from Ireland.