On 31 July, I travelled from Adelaide to Bangalore via Singapore. After arriving in India, I was stopped by immigration officials and asked questions like: why had I travelled to India in the past? Why had I stayed so long on my previous trip? What were the full names and professions of the friends I’d be staying with? What was my job? How many books had I written? After about an hour of this, and despite having a valid visa and an onward ticket to Bangladesh, I was refused entry to India and ordered to book the first flight back to my port of origin. Once outside Indian jurisdiction, I tried to divert my flight from Adelaide to Dhaka, but was refused entry to Singapore and held in airport detention for being ‘ineligible for the issue of a pass under current immigration policies’. Ambiguous enough, but less so than the tight-lipped officiousness surrounding my refused entry to India. Since answers from official channels have not been forthcoming, the matter remains open to interpretation.
Some people turn to religion to help make sense of unknown elements of the universe, but when dealing with bureaucracy and sovereign borders, I favour 80s protest songs and Jacques Derrida. Their pertinence to the current global political climate remain striking, particularly Derrida’s later discussions of cosmopolitanism as a negotiation between the unconditional right to hospitality and the state-regulated duty of hospitality. The vexedness of border-crossing and of demonstrating cosmopolitanism is evident in the enforced deportation of the Rohingya, asylum seekers detained on Nauru and Manus Islands, the Israeli occupation of Gaza and the West Bank, the influx of Central American refugees at the US-Mexico border, the Syrian refugee crisis, and countless other situations the world over.
As a white Australian passport-holder, able to choose and afford to travel, I do not, of course, align my recent whirlwind trip with any of the above. But even my subjective experience of a country’s failure to demonstrate the ethics of hospitality may address and be part of a larger discourse, especially if you consider what mattered was my journey, rather than my destination.
During my enforced transit at Kempegowda International Airport in Bangalore, I called a friend who was just starting his day’s work in that inaccessible city. He suggested my refused entry could be due to diplomatic retribution – India’s payback for the times its citizens are questioned, harassed and detained while travelling (Frankfurt Airport is reputedly notorious), or denied access to countries like Australia. I’ve long heard similar stories, even witnessed scenes, of friends delayed, searched and interrogated at borders or their visas denied to holiday, to visit family, to attend funerals. Visas denied from the UK, visas denied from the US; sometimes with an explanation, usually without. I’m aware of the process of finding a sponsor in the country you intend to visit; the difficulty of proving your bank account sustainedly contains the required threshold of cash, not just a last minute lump sum loaned by one friend (or more). When I was first working in Bangladesh in 2007, the unofficial advice circulating from the Australian High Commission was if Muslim men were submitting paperwork for a visa to Australia, their chances of success would be higher if they shaved off their beards for the application photo.
In the detainment centre at Changi Airport, I chatted with women sharing the dormitory, present due to unfortunate circumstances rather than malicious intent (note to the Department of Home Affairs: as immigration detainees predominantly are). One woman, a domestic worker from Sri Lanka, had a new employer who had omitted a signature in the paperwork for her work permit. Waiting to travel back to Colombo, the woman was readying herself, after questioning from Sri Lankan immigration, to start the application process once more. Another woman from the Philippines, who had attempted to visit her Singaporean husband, wasn’t aware of a spouse visa when I asked if that’s what she was travelling on. Depending on our airlines, some of us were billed for our stay in custody, whereas others were not. I spent the rest of my time lying on a top bunk with a book between my face and the security cameras. Incidentally, I had carried with me Kamila Shamsie’s Home Fire, which opens with this scene:
Isma was going to miss her flight. The ticket wouldn’t be refunded because the airline took no responsibility for passengers who arrived at the airport three hours ahead of departure time and were escorted to an interrogation room. She had expected the interrogation, but not the hours of waiting what would precede it, nor that it would feel so humiliating to have the contents of her suitcase inspected. She’d made sure not to pack anything that would invite comment or questions—no Quran, no family pictures, no books on her areas of academic interest…
The theory of reprisal is not far-fetched. I can’t help but locate it within Ashis Nandy’s concept of ‘third world nationalism’, which surely includes the regulation of sovereign borders, as a defensive reaction to colonialism, or even Frantz Fanon’s idea that expressions of power conflate the colonised’s identification with and repudiation of the coloniser. In terms of Australia and the ‘push-back’ tactics of Operation Sovereign Borders, our own nationalistic fear is due, as Ghassan Hage puts it, to the ‘sensitivity of thieves’ in a land already stolen from its traditional owners.
Tension across the sub-continent, in some respects a related reaction to colonialism, is also offered to account for my refused entry to India: emphasis has been laid on my planned itinerary from pre-election India to pre-election Bangladesh, as well as my long-standing ties to both countries. On 1 August, I was still in Bangalore Airport when my interview with Kaiser Haq, a poet friend in Bangladesh, was published, prologued by a discussion of the trend of murders of secular intellectuals in Bangladesh. On 5 August, shortly after returning to Australia, I learned that another friend in Bangladesh, photographer and activist Shahidul Alam, had been arrested in Dhaka for his comments regarding recent student protests and the ‘much larger’ political atmosphere in which they arose. At the least, Alam’s arrest serves as a reminder that controlling and filtering individuals applies to intellectual as well as to geographic borders.
When a friend in Delhi declared I had been profiled by Indian immigration officials as a troublesome intellectual, I demurred, citing my under-the-radar status and work that, while not apolitical in content or association, is hardly frontline journalism. An academic herself, my friend insisted that to be asked by immigration officials whether I wrote books wasn’t idle chit-chat: rather it signifies I have access to certain research tools, the media and channels of publication. Shortly after my refused entry, my name was added to Himal Southasian’s Blacklist, which tracks and compiles similar cases of exclusion:
Southasian governments regularly misuse their discretionary visa allotment powers to keep out those they consider ‘undesirable’ – such as critical journalists, scholars, and activists. This practice is more widespread than is recognised, even in countries with a liberal image, as individual cases fall through the cracks and disappear.
According to the Foreigners Order 1948, entry to India may be refused if a foreigner’s visa and/or passport are missing or invalid; if a foreigner is mentally ill, or carries an infection that could compromise public health; has been sentenced to an extraditable offence; has already been prohibited entry by a competent authority, or if a foreigner is regarded, in the view of civil authorities, as a threat to public safety. Going by deductive reasoning, immigration officers in Bangalore must have believed I posed a danger to their nation – either that, or they denied my entry for no reason at all, which would be a serious accusation of unlawful conduct. Similar thinking must also be applied to the cases of Annie Zaman, Kurt Vogele, Mukunda Raj Kattel, Aaron Gray-Block, Ben Hargreaves and others who fit Derrida’s description of:
men and women capable of speaking out…in a public domain that the new powers of telecommunication render increasingly formidable—to the police forces of all countries, to the religious, political, economic, and social forces of censorship and repression, whether they be state-sponsored or not…
On 28 August, Sudha Bharadwaj, Gautam Navlakha, Vernon Gonsalves, Arun Ferreira and Varavara Rao were arrested by Maharashtra Police under the Unlawful Activities (Prevention) Act. Referred to as ‘Urban Naxals’ and suspected of conspiring to assassinate Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the five are well-known for their activism, particularly regarding caste and religious minorities, and for speaking out against the establishment. Their arrests are more significantly symptomatic of the atmosphere in contemporary India, in which democratic values are painfully slow to splinter, working from the inside to the outermost, contested borders. Dissent may well be have been declared as the prevailing safety valve of democracy, but the earlier comments of David Barsamian, an Armenian-American writer and broadcaster refused entry to India in 2011, indicate the current situation has been on a slow burn:
…this arbitrary action by the government of India in preventing me from entering the country is not a sign of strength of Indian democracy; it’s rather a sign of weakness. A healthy, vibrant democracy should include a rainbow of different opinions, different perspectives, different points of view and it should happily embrace those kind of differences rather than seeking to impose a uniformity of thought and opinion.
In Australia, the end of August brought with it the news that Chelsea Manning had been refused a visa, failing the ‘character test’ cited by Section 501 of the Immigration Act due to her ‘substantial criminal record’. Shortly afterwards, news of the au pair saga broke, along with accusations of Peter Dutton’s complicity and intervention. Australia’s arbitrary application of visa rules has been referenced anew in the cases of a Tamil family facing deportation and the Vietnamese asylum seekers later detained on Christmas Island.
By this time, my journey was over – at least literally. Jumpy as a luckless cat, I tried to relax into the privileges of safety and solitude, listening to heartening lyrics (‘If you’ve got a blacklist I want to be on it’), reading and turning my experience over in my head, bringing up more questions than have been answered, even with the assistance of friends and kindly strangers. The inviolability of state sovereignty is one niggling provocation. Constant entities are often lauded in uncertain times, even if the world’s contemporary concern is, increasingly, adaptability. By giving preference to ethnic nationalism over civic, the result can only be the widening of barriers that separate us from us.
Image: locks / flickr