Yesterday at 3AM, journalist and founder of Alternative Radio, David Barsamian was deported from India after landing at New Delhi’s international airport. Till late this evening, speculations were rife — among those that noticed — about probably cause.
People who follow Barsamian’s India-related work — of which there is a considerable amount — said right away this was because of his latest series on Kashmir, but frankly, I thought this typical public-intellectual milking of the holy Kashmir cow. After all, Barsamian has covered enormously touchy subjects in India — the Narmada valley project, violence in my state, West Bengal, and farmer suicides, one of our pervasive symbols of developmental failure. If the state couldn’t care two bits about all these taken together, why would his series on Kashmir, at a time when everyone was writing about Kashmir, be a such a red flag?
Now, Barsamian has confirmed that it was indeed his reportage on Kashmir that had him kicked off our precious sovereign soil the moment he landed. Indeed, he was kicked off before he was legally on Indian soil, because from my dim understanding of law, international airports are not quite the nation they’ve built on. Once they’re built, the land on which they’re constructed is conferred a different status.
So (a), I am ashamed of judging in haste. I suffer from the reverse-Communist bias. That is, having grown up in a political environment where information — even perfectly innocuous information — is guarded closely as a matter of principle, I find it hard to believe that such ridiculous iron-curtain policies can be practised outside Communist institutions.
And (b), what makes Kashmir such a touchy issue with our government? Is it because it houses a population that openly wants to secede? Unlikely. The north-east of India and the northern part of my own state also wants to secede, yet journalists and academics can move in and out of these areas with relative ease. Indeed, most of the initial threat to outsiders comes from non-state actors in these areas, not the state.
Is it because the Pakistani administration– and it’s “Who, me? Nooooo” ally the United States government — continues to be a very present threat to India’s Kashmiri (and other north western) borders? Again, just by itself, unlikely. China is a clear and present threat to the Indian north and north-east, and quite influential besides. So much so, that international maps of India now label it’s easternmost state Arunachal Pradesh — which borders China — a ‘disputed area’, conceding the Chinese point of view over the Indian and British. But we seldom hear a peep about AP.
The centrality of Kashmir, therefore, comes from something else. It comes from the Indian state’s image of itself. Despite its ‘unity in diversity’ pitch, there are very clear visual and spatial borders to the Indian mainstream — from which its politicians and administrators are primarily drawn and whose ideologies they reflect. And these borders are drawn just short of the lands of those ‘Chinese-looking’ demographies of the north and north-east (within the subcontinent, they fence out the hilly, forested terrains of the tribal populace from ‘normal’ India). Violence in Arunachal Pradesh or Jharkhand, therefore, is either a matter of aggression by extra-state agents, or domestic terrorism. Violence in Kashmir, however, is an assault on the pan-Indian identity the state has tried very hard to craft, and from which it draws it legitimacy and authority.
If people who ‘look Chinese’ renounce the Indian state, after all, a justifiable case for violently suppressing them can be made to the Indian mainstream. However, if people who look like the Indian mainstream — maybe fairer, with the occasional blue eyes — want to secede from it, the very idea of India is threatened.
And we can’t be having that now, can we?