New Delhi: Kashmiri journalist and author, Gowhar Geelani, is the latest from the state to be detained at the IGI airport in New Delhi, an action senior lawyer Vrinda Grover has termed as being completely “arbitrary, unlawful and unconstitutional”.
Geelani, the author of Kashmir: Rage and Reason, said he was on his way to Germany for a media training programme when at 9:15 pm on Saturday, the immigration officer at Delhi’s Indira Gandhi International Airport asked him to wait for 10 minutes after he had checked in for his Lufthansa flight.
Geelani told ThePrint that in the last 13 years of extensive travel, he has never been stopped from boarding a flight — until now.
“I was supposed to be boarding my flight for an eight-day training programme for editors at the German media organisation Deutsche Welle, when the immigration officer asked me to wait and summoned a man who identified himself as Abhishek,” Geelani told ThePrint.
“I was taken to a room and my passport and boarding pass were taken away,” he added. More airport authorities walked in and out, “making calls and speaking to one another,” as Geelani waited. On asking them politely why he was being stopped from boarding his flight, the journalist says that he was told “Aapko pata hai ki aaj kal dikkat hai kashmir mein (You know these are troubles in Kashmir these days)”.
Geelani says he tried to explain that he was not a politician but a published author who has been travelling for over a decade and frequently appears on television. “This is my duty, I am only following the orders of my seniors,” he was told. When Geelani asked to be shown a written order explaining his detention, “The officer told me that I have every right to fight, but cannot share any written order or explanation with me.”
It was only five hours later that his passport and boarding pass were returned to him — “I tried to find hotel to stay at but everything was booked at 2 am, so it was 4 o clock in the morning before I got anywhere,” Geelani says, adding that “I’ve missed my training programme. This is not only curtailing my right to travel and speech, but my right to employment.”
‘Arbitrary, unlawful and unconstituional’
Senior lawyer Vrinda Grover sees Geelani’s detention as being completely “unconstitutional,” not only because “he has a fundamental right to travel and free speech, but because he has a fundamental right to work”.
“He was going in connection with an employment opportunity; we have nothing to show that he was going there to speak,” she said. “Any Kashmiri travelling out of the country is going to say things that the government doesn’t like, which is clearly an apprehension that the government is fearful of because that runs counter to what the government and its media is churning out with a complete embargo on communication and information.”
“These individuals then become the force of truth and facts and that is why they’re being barred,” she said, adding that “Unless the Indian media stands up and fights this battle, you’re really leaving it to your Kashmiri counterparts, and I think that’s a tragedy.”
Grover further explains that the only lawful way in which the state authorities can detain someone from boarding a flight is “if an official lookout circular has been issued in their name, either in connection with an ongoing investigation, due to some criminal case against this person, or an impending arrest.”
“Without any criminal case pending, or an investigation lodged against this person, or the absence of a LOC, the law does not authorise this detention,” she tells ThePrint.
Citing the 2015 case of senior Greenpeace campaigner Priya Pillai, who was offloaded from a London-bound flight, Grover says that the Delhi High Court had upheld their contention, “that there was absolutely no justifiable reason for offloading her”.
Four years ago, Pillai was on her way to brief British parliamentarians on the rights of forest-dwelling communities affected by coal mining, which Grover says, “may have been a view contrary to the government’s position. However, that does not in any way give any authority or power to the government to prevent her from flying”.
Grover, who represented Pillai in the Delhi HC, won the case, with the court judgment unequivocally stating that “amongst the varied freedoms conferred on an individual (i.e., the citizen), is the right of free speech and expression, which necessarily includes the right to criticize and dissent. Criticism, by an individual, may not be palatable; even so, it cannot be muzzled”.
“Her fundamental right to travel cannot be abridged abitraritly because you apprehend that she will say something which may be different from the government’s stated position,” Grover reasserts, adding that Pillai’s case is an apt precedent for what happened with Geelani last night.
According to a report in the Indian Express, Geelani was detained based on a request by the Intelligence Bureau. A source told the media house shortly after Geelani’s detention Saturday that his baggage had already been offloaded and “as of now, he is with Immigration officials. Intelligence agencies have been informed; they will question him further”.
The renowned journalist is but one more name in the long list of Kashmiri politicians and civilians who have been detained by Indian authorities since Article 370 was repealed on August 5. The list also includes former chief ministers Omar Abdullah and Mehbooba Mufti among 500 other leaders and political workers. Just last month, Kashmiri bureaucrat-turned-politician Shah Faesal was similarly detained at the IGI Airport and sent back to Kashmir, where he was made to stay in a hotel, rather than his residence.
“He will be questioned in connection with some matter once he is back. We are also looking into why he was flying out of the country,” a source told ThePrint at the time, while PTI reported that he was detained under the Public Safety Act on arrival at the Srinagar airport.
“I’m a little threatened and scared,” Geelani admits over the phone, “If you have former chief ministers in detention, Shah Faesal, and AFP even reported that 4,000 civilians are being held, then I don’t know which place is safer anymore, Delhi or Kashmir.”
“I think the government is paranoid right now, because of the complete lockdown no stories are getting out of Kashmir,” he says. “So any Kashmiri that has some voice, be it from civil society or trade or politics — if they go abroad and speak to people then stories will break this silence.”
Geelani, who has been critical of the government’s decision to revoke the special status granted to his home state, says that he personally spoke to a Kashmiri girl who “took a flight from Delhi and then walked 18 kilometres on foot to get insulin to her diabetic father”.
“Either they want to silence everyone or silence particular voices, but this (training) programme wasn’t to do with that, it wasn’t a conference on Kashmir or something, but rather a very technical session where they would teach us about new media,” Geelani says.
Geelani has been unable to contact his family in Kashmir in the last two days because of a “snag in my sim card,” he says, wondering if the sequence of events is somehow related. “They have no idea that this has happened.”
“This has never happened to me before. I recently travelled to Spain, have been flying to London, Germany, but this was very surprising, even a little bizarre.”