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'Immigration Officials Spoke of Orders From Delhi': Academic Deported Ahead of Karnataka Govt Event

Nitasha Kaul, who heads the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster, was invited by the Karnataka government to attend ‘The Constitution and Unity in India’ conference as a delegate. She was denied entry and made to leave India, she says.
Nitasha Kaul, in an image she uploaded on X, allegedly showing her at the holding cell where she was detained by Indian immigration officials, prior to deportation. Photo: X/@NitashaKaul

New Delhi: Immigration authorities have deported the UK-based Kashmiri academic and writer Nitasha Kaul who was invited by the Congress-run government in Karnataka for a pro-democracy conference held in the state’s capital of Bengaluru earlier this week.

Kaul, who heads the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster, was invited through a letter by the Karnataka government’s social welfare minister, H.C. Mahadevappa, to attend ‘The Constitution and Unity in India’ conference as a delegate.

However, Kaul says that when she arrived at the Kempegowda International Airport in Bengaluru on February 23, she was stopped by the immigration authorities and, after a 24-hour ordeal in a “holding cell”, deported to London without being given any reason behind the action. Kaul holds a British-Overseas Citizenship of India passport.

Speaking with The Wire from London, Kaul said that she was “taunted” for her critique of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) – the ideological fountainhead of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party – and its leaders by immigration officials who did not give any reason in writing for her deportation.

“I did say to the immigration officials that India is not China – it is supposed to be a democracy and therefore this kind of behaviour is completely unacceptable,” she told The Wire, adding that the officials claimed that they had “orders from Delhi” to stop her.

The deportation of Kaul, a Kashmiri Pandit who has criticised the Narendra Modi government’s watering down of Article 370, is likely to shine light on the crackdown on free speech and the shackling of the academia in India.

Also read: Six Tables that Tell the Story of Academic Unfreedom in India

Kashmir and academic freedom

India stood in the bottom 30% among 179 countries in the Academic Freedom Index in 2022, below Pakistan.

The incident also brings into focus the travel restrictions imposed by the government on nearly eight dozen Kashmiri academics, journalists, lawyers, political activists and others who have been termed as a ‘threat’ to the ‘security of the state’ and put on a ‘no-fly-list’ after the reading down of Article 370.

Kaul co-edited Can You Hear Kashmiri Women Speak? Narratives of Resistance and Resilience, a new collection of essays by Kashmiri women on the themes of the representation of women in Kashmiri literature, sexual violence and militarisation of Kashmir in the aftermath of the watering down of Article 370.

The move to read down Article 370 “does not serve Indians, Kashmiri Pandits, or anyone other than the Modi-led Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), backed by the far-right Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) paramilitary and their supporters and crony industrialist backers. It makes Indians less secure and makes the future of Pandits ever more uncertain and hostage to circumstances,” Kaul wrote in Foreign Policy on August 13, 2019.

The two day conference, which Kaul missed, was held on February 24-25 at Palace Grounds in Bengaluru.

Professor Gopal Guru, editor of Economic and Political Weekly, Dr S.Y. Quraishi, former Chief Election Commissioner of India, Professor Nandini Sundar of the Delhi School of Economics and Yamini Aiyar, president and chief executive of the Centre for Policy Research, were among eminent academics and historians who attended the event.

In a letter to Kaul on February 5, Mahadevappa noted that her presence would add a “unique vantage point” to the event and that her “body of her work will undoubtedly enrich the conference and enable us to collectively achieve our shared goals.”

“This conference shall normatively reflect on broad themes of ‘Constitutionalism’, ‘Justice’, ‘Inclusiveness’ and Identity’ and thereby rethink current socio-economic, political and cultural paradigms. In doing so, we hope to collectively propose innovative ideas to redress structural problems in India and the world,” the letter noted.

Speaking with The Wire, one of the organisers of the event, who didn’t want to be named, said that Kaul called the organisers at around 4 am on Saturday after she was detained by the airport authorities. “The Karnataka government officials took up Kaul’s detention with officials of the Ministry of External Affairs but nothing came out of it.”

“Kaul wasn’t even given any document for her detention. It was only the airline staff that finally gave her the notice that said she wasn’t permitted in India,” the organiser said.

Kaul was one of the international delegates who was supposed to speak in different interactive sessions at the event. The organiser added that at least eight of the international delegates who attended the event were “unnecessarily screened at the Bengaluru airport”.

“They were asked too many questions, detained for hours, and mentally harassed but were finally allowed to leave the airport,” they said, adding that “Kaul was the only one who was denied permission to enter India.”

The logistical support for her visit, including her travel, was arranged by the government of Karnataka, she said, alleging that the airport authorities didn’t provide her “basic things such as a pillow and blanket” while she was in the holding cell before her deportation.

“I am a globally respected academic & public intellectual, passionate about liberal democratic values. I care for gender equity, challenging misogyny, sustainability, civil & political liberties, rule of law. I am not anti-Indian, I am anti-authoritarian & pro-democracy,” she said in a post on X, formerly Twitter.

“How can the world’s largest democracy be threatened by my pen & the word? How is it ok for Centre to not allow a professor to be at a conference on Constitution where she was invited by the state government? To give no reason? Not the India we cherish, is it?” she asked.

Speaking on the matter, Karnataka minister and Convention organiser H.C. Mahadevappa said in a statement, “This incident is a fresh demonstration of how the rights of state governments are being repeatedly trampled. It is the right of the Karnataka Government to both organise a Constitution Convention and to host experts who can meaningfully contribute to how the state’s development and national interest can be furthered. Our rights (and hence the federal principles enshrined in our Constitution) were once again undermined by the Government of India.”

He said that Kaul, like all other invitees, is “an important voice deeply invested in furthering India’s development and constitutional values”. He added that Kaul is the first female and Kashmiri Pandit director of the Centre for the Study of Democracy at the University of Westminster, who has extensively worked on gender issues and the rights of Kashmiri Pandits,

“Prof Kaul has a valid British passport and an Overseas Citizen of India card, which grants her a multiple purpose and life-long visa for visiting India. Additionally, as an OCI card holder, she is also exempted from registration with the Foreign Regional Registration Officer. Yet, Prof Kaul was inexplicably denied entry, detained and eventually deported by the immigration authorities citing orders from above. No order to this effect has yet been furnished either to Karnataka or her,” he said, alleging that the Union government was selectively weaponising laws to “circumscribe the rights” of critics.

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