The arrest of US-radio journalist David Barsamian at the New Delhi airport in late September 2011 had a chilling effect on me. Like Barsamian, I reported — though for a brief period — on Kashmir. My stories included war widows, mourning mothers, and political party members (read former militants). The only way I could understand the truth or varied aspects of it was to write. And that’s what I did.
In the city of Srinagar in Indian-administered Kashmir, what I did not know then is that I was followed. Indian authorities likely kept a tab on my place of residence, forcing me to shift from one hotel to another guest house. I received strange phone calls by the head of police on a mobile given to me by political activists. I hung up. I met with local contacts in private, including female group leaders and innocent victims of violence. I did not always watch-my-back, though I did avoid multiple visits to Central Jail. I could not convincingly say I was a cousin or sister of a detained activist. I did not realise that my Nikita-style black boots and designer-like eye make-up would give me away.
While my simple adventures into Kashmir cannot compare to Barsamian, I know the agony of being judged. I understand the feeling of being incongruously isolated for wishing to narrate the stories of women wishing to release their grievances to an American Muslim woman. I know that women risked their lives to meet with me. In November 2008, a month of political campaign and protests, I met women in private and became painfully aware of the lives they must lead. As an American, I could not imagine the life of women on-the-run, kept away from their families, constantly shielded and screened from the public view.
Each visit to Kashmir was enigmatic. I was never satisfied. I needed to learn more. Write more. Examine the conflict as it is experienced by its people, rather than the trappings of Western or Indian reporting. As I prepared for a visit in June 2009, my visa was mysteriously recalled two days before the planned trip. The Indian Embassy in Washington, DC revoked my visa on violation of “visa norms.” The Consular officer, a lean dark gentleman with beady eyes, stated matter-of-factly, “You visited India on a tourist visa but you did not act as a tourist.” Baffled, I thought, as Arundhati Roy boldly stated in her op-ed ‘Dead Men Talking’ in Dawn, “Is it illegal for tourists to talk to people in the countries they visit?” Surely, as an American citizen, I had a right to engage the local population without the threat of harassment or harm.
In my defense, I handed the official a copy of my not-yet-published book draft on the women of Kashmir. I explained my previous position in the US government and then as a researcher for an international think tank. I tried to reason with the officer and assert my academic and research credentials. But his answer was firm, “You met the wrong people.” At that moment, it became clear to me that the Indian government divided people into categories of right and wrong. Were political activists with a non-violent agenda mistakenly immoral and illegal? Or perhaps, it was the woman cloaked in an all-black abaya who invited me to her home that raised red flags? Or was my presence at an all-female protest in the old city startling and seriously damaging to New Delhi? Three years later, Roy’s piece made me understand that revoking my visa, not once but thrice, intended to quiet my aspirations of writing anything further of India’s undeclared and unambiguous occupation of Kashmir.
Determined to travel again, I met with Washington’s incoming Indian Ambassador Singh and his wife at a Congressional greet-and-meet party. The Ambassador reassured me that I had committed no crime. But even he had limits of power. I finally stopped demanding a response to the visa question when an insider informed me that the Indian Home Ministry sealed my file. “You will not be able to travel to India for the next ten years. So you can forget about Kashmir,” the insider told me.
The drama with Delhi did not end there. Months later, Indian commercial broadcasting television NDTV aired a false report that portrayed me as a spy from Pakistan. Using a collage of pictures downloaded from the Internet and an Indian woman’s voice that was not my own, the program attempted to reveal a story based on fiction and fantasy. Simple logic should have revealed to the network that as an American citizen, and once a US government official, I could not have worked for the Pakistani government. It is illegal. The television station refused to retract the story, and I also refused to condemn (read sue) the network.
Years ago, I made a promise I intend to keep. While I accept that I might be punished for pushing the Kashmir issue, no form of intimidation will prevent me from writing the stories of Kashmiri women — invisible and intangible to the outside world. Anyone who has been to Kashmir knows it is an unforgettable place. A land etched by a people, who are extraordinarily simple and sincere. It is a valley where the struggles of women are often obscured and out-of-sight, unless their stories are recorded and reach an audience outside of South Asia.
The views expressed by this blogger and in the following reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of the Dawn Media Group.