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Dead Men Talking

05 Oct

The Indian state can silence the living, not the voice of the silent

Arundhati Roy

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”).

You would be better off wearing a Prada suit and pretending you want to buy a mine than wear corduroys and say you want to attend a seminar.

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.


Photograph by Reuters, From Outlook, October 10, 2011

Cacophony of the deceased
It’s insensitive of the unmarked graves to embarrass the Government of India just when India’s record is due for review before the UNHRC.

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.

Apart from Dangerous David, who else is the world’s largest democracy afraid of? There’s young Lingaram Kodopi, an adivasi from Dantewada, who was arrested on September 9, 2011. The police say they caught him red-handed in a marketplace while he was handing over protection money from Essar, an iron ore mining company, to the banned Communist Party of India (Maoist). His aunt Soni Sori says that he was picked up by plainclothes policemen in a white Bolero from his grandfather’s house in Palnar village. Now she’s on the run too. Interestingly, even by their own account, the police arrested Lingaram but allowed the Maoists to escape. This is only the latest in a series of bizarre, almost hallucinatory accusations they have made against Lingaram and then withdrawn. His real crime is that he’s the only journalist who speaks Gondi, the local language, and who knows how to negotiate the remote forest paths in Dantewada, Chhattisgarh, the other war zone in India from which no news must come.

Kashmir is being isolated by two concentric rings of border patrols, in New Delhi and in Srinagar, as though it’s already a free country with a visa regime.

Having signed over vast tracts of indigenous tribal homelands in central India to multinational mining and infrastructure corporations in a series of secret Memorandums of Understanding—in complete contravention of the law as well as the Constitution—the government has begun to flood the forests with hundreds of thousands of security forces. All resistance, armed as well as unarmed, has been branded ‘Maoist’. (In Kashmir, the preferred phrase is “jehadi elements”). As the civil war grows deadlier, hundreds of villages have been burnt to the ground. Thousands of adivasis have fled as refugees into neighbouring states. Hundreds of thousands are living terrified lives hiding in the forests. Paramilitary forces have laid siege to the forest. A network of police informers patrol village bazaars, making trips for essential provisions and medicines a nightmare for villagers. Untold numbers of nameless people are in jail, charged with sedition and waging war on the state, with no lawyers to defend them. Very little news comes out of those forests, and there are no body counts.


Photograph by Sanjay Rawat

Lingaram Kodopi
He was arrested while apparently handing protection money from Essar. His real crime: he knows Gondi as well as the forest paths in Dantewada.

So it’s not hard to see why young Lingaram Kodopi poses such a threat. Before he trained to become a journalist, he was a driver in Dantewada. In 2009, the police arrested him and confiscated his jeep. He was locked up in a small toilet for 40 days where he was pressurised to become a Special Police Officer (SPO) in the Salwa Judum, the government-sponsored vigilante army that was at the time tasked with forcing people to flee from their villages. (The Salwa Judum has since been declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court.) The police released Lingaram after the Gandhian activist Himanshu Kumar filed a habeas corpus petition in court. But then the police arrested Lingaram’s old father and five other members of his family. They attacked his village and warned villagers not to shelter him. Eventually, Lingaram escaped to Delhi where friends and well-wishers got him admission into a journalism school. In April 2010, he travelled to Dantewada and escorted to Delhi the witnesses and victims of the barbarity of the Salwa Judum, the police and paramilitary forces, enabling them to give testimony at the Independent People’s Tribunal. (In his own testimony, Lingaram was sharply critical of the Maoists as well.)

That did not deter the Chhattisgarh police. On July 2, 2010, the senior Maoist leader, Comrade Azad, the official spokesperson for the Maoist Party, was captured and executed by the Andhra Pradesh police. Deputy Inspector General S.R.P. Kalluri of the Chhattisgarh police announced at a press conference that Lingaram Kodopi had been elected by the Maoist Party to take over Comrade Azad’s role. (It was like accusing a young schoolchild in 1936 Yenan of being Zhou-en-Lai.) The charge was met with such derision that the police had to withdraw it. They had also accused Lingaram of being the mastermind of a Maoist attack on a Congress legislator in Dantewada. But perhaps because they had already made themselves look so foolish and vindictive, they decided to bide their time.

Here stands, India’s ‘gravest’ threat
Paramilitary forces have laid siege to the forest. All resistance, armed or unarmed, has been branded ‘Maoist’. Entire villages are being burned.

Lingaram remained in Delhi, completed his course and received his diploma in journalism. In March 2011, paramilitary forces burned down three villages in Dantewada—Tadmetla, Timapuram and Morapalli. The Chhattisgarh government blamed the Maoists. The Supreme Court assigned the investigation to the Central Bureau of Investigation. Lingaram returned to Dantewada with a video camera and trekked from village to village documenting first-hand testimonies of the villagers who indicted the police. (You can see some of these on YouTube.) By doing this, he made himself one of the most wanted men in Dantewada. On September 9, the police finally got to him.

The case against Kopa has begun unravelling with witnesses disowning their statements. But it doesn’t matter. In India, the process is the punishment.

Lingaram has joined an impressive line-up of troublesome news-gatherers and disseminators in Chhattisgarh. Among the earliest to be silenced was the celebrated doctor Binayak Sen who first raised the alarm about the crimes of the Salwa Judum as far back as 2005. He was arrested in 2007, accused of being a Maoist and sentenced to life imprisonment. After years in prison, he is out on bail now. Several people followed Binayak Sen into prison—including Piyush Guha and the filmmaker Ajay T.G. Both have been accused of being Maoists. These arrests put a chill into the activist community in Chhattisgarh, but didn’t stop some of them from continuing to do what they were doing. Kopa Kunjam worked with Himanshu Kumar’s Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, doing exactly what Lingaram tried to do much later—travelling to remote villages, bringing out the news, and carefully documenting the horror that was unfolding. (He was my first guide into the forest villages of Dantewada.) Much of this documentation has made its way into legal cases that are proving to be a source of worry and discomfort to the Chhattisgarh government.

In May 2009, the Vanvasi Chetna Ashram, the last neutral shelter for journalists, writers and academics who were travelling to Dantewada, was demolished by the Chhattisgarh government. In December 2009, on Human Rights Day, Kopa was arrested. He was accused of colluding with the Maoists in the murder of one man and the kidnapping of another. The case against Kopa has begun to fall apart as the police witnesses, including the man who was kidnapped, have disowned the statements they purportedly made to the police. It doesn’t really matter, because in India we all know the process is the punishment. It will take years for Kopa to establish his innocence, by which time the administration hopes the arrest will have served its purpose. Many villagers who were encouraged by Kopa to file complaints against the police have been arrested too. Some are in jail. Others have been made to live in roadside camps manned by SPOs. That includes many women who committed the crime of being raped. Soon after Kopa’s arrest, Himanshu Kumar was hounded out of Dantewada. In September 2010, another adivasi activist, Kartam Joga, was arrested. His offence was to have filed a petition in the Supreme Court in 2007 about the rampant human rights abuses committed by the Salwa Judum. He is being accused of colluding with the Maoists in the April 2010 killing of 76 crpf personnel in Tadmetla. Kartam Joga is a member of the Communist Party of India (CPI) which has a tense, if not hostile relationship with the Maoists. Amnesty International has named him a Prisoner of Conscience.

Meanwhile, the arrests continue at a steady pace. A casual look at the First Information Reports (FIRs) filed by the police give a pretty clear idea of how the deadly business of Due Process works in Dantewada. The texts of many of the FIRs are exactly the same. The name of the accused, the date, the nature of the crime and the names of witnesses are simply inserted into the biscuit mould. There’s nobody to check. Most of those involved, prisoners as well as witnesses, cannot read or write.

In plain sight
A YouTube video grab in which Kodopi records a villager’s testimony indicting the police in the burning of three Dantewada villages

One day, in Dantewada too, the dead will begin to speak. And it will not just be dead humans, it will be the dead land, dead rivers, dead mountains and dead creatures in dead forests that will insist on a hearing.

Meanwhile, life goes on. While intrusive surveillance, internet policing and phone-tapping and the clampdown on those who speak up becomes grimmer with every passing day, it’s odd how India is becoming the dream destination of literary festivals. There are about 10 of them scheduled over the next few months. Some are funded by the very corporations on whose behalf the police have unleashed their regime of terror. The Harud Literary festival in Srinagar (postponed for the moment) was slated to be the newest, most exciting one—“As the autumn leaves change colour the valley of Kashmir will resonate with the sound of poetry, literary dialogue, debate and discussions….” Its organisers advertised it as an “apolitical” event, but did not say how either the rulers or the subjects of a brutal military occupation that has claimed tens of thousands of lives, bereaved thousands of women and children and maimed a hundred thousand people in its torture chambers can be “apolitical”. I wonder—will the literary guests come on tourist visas? Will there be separate ones for Srinagar and Delhi? Will they need security clearance? Will a Kashmiri who speaks out go directly from the festival to an interrogation centre, or will she be allowed to go home and change and collect her things? (I’m just being crude here, I know it’s more subtle than that.)

The festive din of this spurious freedom helps to muffle the sound of footsteps in airport corridors as the deported are frog-marched on to departing planes, to mute the click of handcuffs locking around strong, warm wrists and the cold metallic clang of prison doors.

Our lungs are gradually being depleted of oxygen. Perhaps it’s time to use whatever breath remains in our bodies to say: Open the bloody gates.

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Posted by on October 5, 2011 in Uncategorized

 

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