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Amazing stuff, India ink. A few drops spread vigorously with a roller for several minutes on an iron plate are enough for eight sets of fingerprints and two sets of handprints on four ancient double-sided and folded Indian police fingerprint forms. By contrast, the mug shot was taken with a digital camera. After that, I was issued an official deportation order, for which I signed to acknowledge receipt. My passport remained in police custody until I got to the security check at the airport, when it was returned to me.
My crime? I had spoken to an audience of 22,000 youth at a Student Islamic Organization conference in Kerala State without having a visa that authorized public speaking or conference participation. India is perhaps the only “democracy” where free speech for foreigners depends upon the visa they are carrying. In fact, it is probably the only such country that has no visit visa category at all, and which has one of the most convoluted, bureaucratic and invasive visa application procedures this side of North Korea.
Not that the visa restrictions are always enforced. However, the myriad regulations and procedures (“for public protection”) permit the security apparatus to control individuals and events at their discretion without having to cite the true reasons for their enforcement. Every effective police state knows the drill.
In my case, I used a tourist visa, because the conference visa is a truly onerous procedure unless it is a state-sponsored event. In fact, that is the only type of conference participation permitted, because even private groups must seek state sponsorship in order to bring speakers from outside. In today’s India, however, state sponsorship is hardly a routine bureaucratic procedure.
It shouldn’t have been this way. India was supposed to have been the model for tolerant multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-confessional societies. And when India was a leader of the Non-Aligned Movement, carefully balancing its relationships among great and small powers and supporting those who might otherwise be a mere pawn in world affairs, this promise seemed plausible.
Regrettably, India has now become a home-grown Raj, choosing sides and fomenting discord between competing interests as a means of governing and controlling, in the best traditions of its colonial past. Thus, for example, conservative Salafist clerics are welcome when they attend conferences on tourist visas, while human rights speakers like David Barsamian, John Esposito, Yvonne Ridley, Wilhelm Langthaler and myself are unwelcome, and are denied visas or expelled, and/or their hosts are prosecuted.
The Salafist treatment is part of a Machiavellian formula hatched by India with its newest partner, Israel. Salafists deserve free speech as much as anyone, but the reason India accords more of it to them is on the advice of Israel. Israel promotes Islamophobia as part of its strategy of demonizing Palestinians and Arabs, a majority of whom are Muslims, and the Salafist brand of Islam fits Israel’s agenda of portraying Islam as an extremist ideology. This stokes the flames of the more extreme nationalist Hindu groups in India and plays on the fears of many other non-Muslim groups, as well. Since Pakistan is an external Muslim enemy, such demonization helps to unify non-Muslim India and permit popular tolerance of greater government control as well as encroachment of security forces on civil rights and privacy.
In fact, India has its own version of the U.S. Patriot Act, curbing the rights of its people. It is called the Unlawful Activities Prevention Act (UAPA), and while the title is more honest than “Patriot”, it is also a bit scary. It implies that people can be snatched from the edge of a sidewalk on the pretext that they were intent on jaywalking. No need for the infraction to happen first.[i] UAPA is an illustration of the degree to which human rights have been marginalized in the land of M.K. Gandhi and Abdulghaffar Khan.
Not that India doesn’t have real security concerns. Communal strife is as old as India itself and has sometimes risen to the level of genocide, which drove the 1947 Pakistan secession. However, it is one thing to use law enforcement to prevent fighting and quite another to use it to drive a wedge between communities with a view towards playing them off against each other.
A case in point is the role that Israel is playing. The self-proclaimed Jewish state is selling itself to India as a worthwhile ally on the basis that it is a) an experienced and effective leader in the fight against Islamist extremism and terrorism, b) a supplier of high-tech weapons and intelligence, and c) a means of access to U.S. support and cooperation. In effect, Israel is saying that both states have common friends and enemies and that Israel is in a position to provide what India needs.
India appears to be buying, and is currently the largest customer for Israeli military arms systems and services. Never mind that the expensive Iron Dome systems are effective less than 50% of the time against rockets from Gaza that use 16th century technology. Like most governments, India has been seduced by the promise of omniscient surveillance systems and the prospect of winning battles rather than preventing them.
This is obviously a devil’s bargain. True to the nature of such contracts, however, are the surprises that await the unwary. It is instructive to remember that Israeli agents once planted bombs in Baghdad synagogues to encourage Iraq’s Jews to emigrate to Israel. (It worked, and encouraged Iraqi thugs toward violence, as well.)
Since then, Israel has stolen nuclear weapon technology and weapons grade fissionable material from the U.S., conducted the most massive spying operation in U.S. history against its “ally”, and staged numerous assassinations and “black ops” actions outside its borders, including friendly countries. Questions currently surround the killing of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria and the putative assassination attempt on Israeli diplomats in India. Israel blamed both of these on Iran on the basis of flimsy evidence, possibly fabricated in collaboration with its allies, the violent Mujahedin-e-Khalq Iranian exile group.
India would do well to be more circumspect toward friends like this. Vilifying Iran is high on Israel’s current agenda, and Israel reportedly provided “evidence” and pushed the Indian government to prosecute the case. The result was the arrest of journalist Syed Mohammed Ahmed Kazmi, who anchors a news program on West Asia providing alternative views of events in the region. His open advocacy of better relations with Iran and his Iranian contacts were enough make him an Israeli target and an Indian suspect. After seven months of incarceration, however, the Indian government had to release him for lack of evidence.
Kazmi and I shared the podium at the SIO conference in Kerala and I was able to chat with him privately just prior to the event. He is a courageous man, willing to accept the risk of speaking in public so soon after his release, but appears to hold no bitterness. Peaceful dissent of this kind needs to be encouraged in India, which is well advised to heed John F. Kennedy’s warning that, “Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable.”
Sadly, Israel sees violent revolution in foreign countries to be in its national interest, under the “divide and conquer” principle. However, one would think that India’s principle would be the opposite if it wants to remain a successful unified nation with a highly diverse population seeking assurance that all their voices are heard in a national consensus. Furthermore, there is no need for India to acquire the same enemies as Israel. It may be in Israel’s perceived interests, but is it in India’s?
My few days in Kerala were an inspiring glimpse of what is possible. I saw thousands of young Indian Muslims whose religious and social mission is to benefit all mankind, to alleviate the social ills of Muslims and non-Muslims alike, to promote interfaith cooperation and to create an umbrella that is inclusive of everyone.
Although this was a Muslim event, many who attended were not Muslim and were invited directly by their Muslim neighbors. I was invited to be the keynote speaker even though I am not Muslim and spoke more generally about human rights and about Palestinian issues, which are not specifically Muslim or Indian. Roughly 40% of the attendees were young women, in a society not always known for its success in promoting women’s rights.
These young people were politically aware, committed, well organized and motivated. Society is supposed to create models for young people, but in this case it was the young that created a model for their society.
Dr. Paul Larudee is a human rights advocate and one of the co-founders of the movement to break the siege of Gaza by sea. He was deported from India on 31st December, 2012.
[i] For a fictional treatment illustrating the absurdity of this proposition, see the film Minority Report (2002).