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Kashmir to Manchester: journey of a refugee journalist

Amitt Bhatt has travelled a long and rocky road on his journey to the UK. It is a journey that has left its mark on him, and it’s not over yet.  As we sit at my kitchen table in Manchester, he tells me how the drawn out asylum application process is taking its toll on his health.

He recounts the horrors of Kashmir in the 1990s, where this journey begins, and how the lies and injustice behind those events formed his desire to seek and speak the truth.

The Kashmiri Insurgency began after a disputed state election in 1987 was a catalyst for the formation of various armed Kashmiri separatist and nationalist groups which opposed Indian Government rule. During this time the minority Hindu Kashmiri Pandit population, including Amitt and his family, were subject to growing instances of abuse, violence, and murder. These attacks, carried out by armed Islamist insurgents and mobs motivated by religious hatred were encouraged by inflammatory statements made by prominent Kashmiri Muslims.

The 19th of January 1990 is a black day for the Kashmiri Pandits. Hundreds of thousands of Kashmiri Pandits, including Amitt and his family, were forced to flee Kashmir due to increased levels of orchestrated abuse and violence towards them. Mosque loudspeakers, usually used to call the faithful to prayer, were used for more sinister means:

The militants had taken over all the mosques; the clergy was with the militants. From all the mosques it was blaring: ‘you have to go out, we don’t want any non muslims here, we don’t want any Indians here’.”

Amitt strongly believes that Kashmir’s neighbour Pakistan played a large part in this. He says members of the Taliban and Mujahadeen were responsible for many appalling atrocities committed, including rape and murder.

“Islamic terrorism sponsored by Pakistan was brought into the [Kashmir] valley. Three hundred and fifty thousand people left the valley, it was an ethnic cleansing that happened. It was almost like we were made refugees in our own country. It is very heart rending to see 350,000 people exiled.”

Being aware of the historical animosity between India and Pakistan, it is a surprise when Amitt says who he sees as most responsible for failing to support them on that black day:

The Indian government is 110% responsible. When it comes to Pakistan I would say yes, they are our adversaries, there is a long history of hate going on between us. The failure of the Indian government was more responsible, in the initial stages, during and after.”

Press bias

During the troubles in Kashmir, Mark Tully was the BBC correspondent. When Amitt listened to these broadcasts about events he was an eyewitness to, he could not believe what he was hearing. Tully’s reports concentrated on the violence of the army in supressing the Islamist insurgents but made little mention of the horrors the Pandit community were experiencing.

When Amitt, then 17 years old, had resettled in Delhi with his family, he asked his grandfather how a respected BBC reporter like Tully could report a story that was so different to Amitt’s own experiences, his grandfather’s reply was prophetic:

Don’t worry. The fire that has burned our homes will touch their shores also”.

India: a dangerous place for  journalists

After graduating from college with an engineering qualification Amitt began working for Sanjay Kamwal, the editor of the Delhi Public Mail newspaper, a small independent title shining a light on corruption stories that the Indian mainstream media would not touch.

“Those exposes were quite difficult for the [mainstream] press to handle. Unfortunately, in India the media and press members are more like mouth pieces for the political parties. It is the independent media which does the real investigative journalism.”

Amitt Bhatt Journalist

Amitt Bhatt

Another major factor in the poor performance of the press in India is that it is a very dangerous place to practice journalism. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ), India is the 9th deadliest country in the world for journalists. Forty deaths have been recorded in India since 1992 in which the deceased work as a journalist was confirmed as a cause; there were also 26 deaths with unconfirmed motives.

Of these deaths 68% were due to murder. But, in a particularly damning statistic for the Indian justice system, for 96% of those victims there is no justice. The murderers are either brought to court and found not guilty, or no one is charged at all. India has had a spot on the CPJ’s impunity index for 8 years straight and currently ranks 14th.

Delhi Commonwealth Games exposé

In spite of these dangers, Amitt chose to take an undercover investigation into the corruption surrounding the preparations for the 2010 Commonwealth Games in Delhi. Due to his degree in engineering he managed to secure a position with an organisation building the infrastructure for the games. Working slowly and methodically Amitt gathered evidence:

I saw mass mismanagement and rampant corruption going on in the name of the commonwealth games”

Suresh Kalmadi a “top shot politician” and chairman of the Commonwealth Games Organising Committee was one of those Amitt claims was implicated in corruption by the information he leaked to his colleagues. Kalmadi was placed under scrutiny by India’s anti-corruption squad the Central Vigilance Commission (CVC), and charged in 2011 with corruption related to the Games.

Another high profile politician accused of corruption by Amitt was Chief Minister of Delhi, Sheila Dikshit. The CVC also collected evidence that implicated Dikshit in corrupt activities during infrastructure projects for the Games.

Eventually Amitt’s cover was blown and in November 2010 he had to leave his job, but his activities had drawn the unwanted attention of the Indian security services.

Book release

Amitt is also an author. In 2009, Cryashmir was published, a collection of poetry and prose describing the Kashmiri Pandits’ exile in 1990. The publication of his second book caused more of a stir. Lies and Genocide of the Indian Government documented the failings of the Indian government in Kashmir, as well as: cases of government corruption including the mining corruption scandal, the Bhopal Gas tragedy and the 1984 anti-Sikh riots.

It was the release of this book in February 2010 that spurred the Indian police into action. Shortly after the publication Amitt was picked up by Delhi Police Intelligence:

“The problem was that they realised I was planning the second volume of Lies and Genocide of the Indian Government,” being on the inside during the games,“I knew a lot about what was going on there, as well as the Kashmiri issues, so I had lots of proofs.”

After asking Amitt whether his wife been informed of his arrest, he tried to remove any preconceived ideas about criminal justice in India I had:

It is not the UK. There is a serious misconception about the police and security forces. You have to realise they are in the hands of the politicians in those parts of the world. You are not served notice or a warrant and someone comes over and calls you ‘sir, please would you like to come over here’. It doesn’t happen, it is not a civilised world out there.”

Abducted and tortured

Amitt’s was taken to a secluded interrogation centre. Nobody, including his wife, was informed and he wasn’t charged with any crime. He endured 38 days of illegal incarceration and torture including beatings, being forced to drink petrol, and electric shocks across his head:

I almost ended up an invalid. I am still suffering from health problems, I have ulcerative colitis, I have epilepsy , I have tinitus, I am deaf in my right ear, and the right side of my brain and skull I always have a constant pain going on… I have PTSD [post traumatic stress disorder] due to the whole incident.”

He also suspected his food was drugged, making him “go into a hallucination state” and lose all track of time, as there were no windows in his cell.

Amitt devised a survival strategy as the security services continued to interrogate him:

I realised early on that they were hell bent on finishing me off. It was better to die with whatever you have, rather than the moment you reveal, then also will they finish you off.”

Unknown to Amitt, during the later part of his imprisonment the Indian Police raided his home in Delhi where his disabled wife Manjeet Kaur lived. They searched for the “proofs” that Bhatt had stubbornly refused to divulge. A lull in the interrogation cycle Amitt had been subjected to followed, which he later realised was probably due to his jailers analysing information gathered in the raids on his home.

With his captors focus elsewhere, Amitt was able to gather what little strength he had left to plan an escape. During a previous visit to a toilet he was occasionally allowed to use he had noticed that the bars on the window were loose. On his next visit he managed to work the bar free. Squeezing through the window and into the field beyond it, Amitt made it to the nearest road:

I flagged a lorry, got into it and I asked the driver which day of February are we on? ‘February, its March now! Where are you living, which time zone are you in, we are half way through March!’.”

Fugitive

Amitt may have escaped the centre, but he was still a wanted man and could not return to his former life. He became a fugitive in his own country, relying on the generosity of friends, and moving from one hideaway to another while still severely ill from the torture he had endured. The police were still on his tail; in a narrow escape, Amitt had just left a safe house on the back of a lorry when the place was raided by police searching for him.

It was the most horrible time. I was a fugitive and a half dead man, moving around trying to save myself,” Amitt shakes his head while recalling these tough memories. “How did I pull through all that?”.

After travelling back to Delhi he discovered his wife had left the country after the police had raided their home. She sought asylum in the UK on the advice of his editor. His editor Sanjay Kamwal had also gone to ground after Amitt had disappeared, fearing that he would also be picked up by the security services.

His friends stood by him and managed to secure him a Visa to travel to the UK. They planned to smuggle him out during the general election, which in India spans one and a half months and puts a severe strain on the civil service including border controls. On the 29th of April 2014, Amitt managed to slip through the security checks and flew to the UK.

A colleague of Amitt’s, who he first met in 2009 and corresponded with regularly, called Umesh Rajput was not so lucky. Rajput, who had a reputation for exposing corruption, was shot on his doorstep. A note left behind said:

If you don’t stop publishing news, you will die”.

This happened in the month before Amitt was abducted. More recently in June 2015, Jagendra Singh, a freelance journalist, was at home when the local police allegedly barged in, beat him up, poured petrol over him and then set him on fire. He later died in hospital from his injuries, but not before implicating the police in his murder. No one has yet been charged or convicted of this horrific crime.

Asylum seeker

On arrival to the UK, Amitt immediately claimed asylum. He pleaded with the officials at the airport to first be allowed see his wife, who he had not seen for three years. The answer was an emphatic no and he was taken to Harmandswoth Detention Centre. Amitt’s experience there was an unpleasant one, like many other refugees.

His asylum interview he describes as “more of an interrogation than an interview”. The interviewer rushed through the questions and did not give him time to fully explain his situation. Amitt says the the interview was also carried out while he was under the influence of medication. He describes the whole process as a “waste of taxpayers money. The evaluation process does not work. Someone who has been through torture should not be in a detention centre.”

After a month he was released and finally reunited with his wife in Manchester. His next asylum hearing is on the 28 October 2016.

What next?

Exile, abductee, fugitive, refugee and asylum seeker; what comes next all depends on the outcome of the asylum hearing. If his asylum appeal is successful he plans to continue working as a journalist in the UK, making the most of the freedom to practice journalism that the UK offers. He is determined to continue his support of press freedom in India and to finish writing his latest book called Open Prison, which is a joint initiative with the National Union of Journalists, documenting his experience as an asylum seeker. And, of course, he will continue to champion the cause of the Kashmiri exiles, which was the subject of his latest book Kashmiri Pandits.

If unsuccessful he will be extradited back to India where he risks further persecution and danger from the security services for his past and future work uncovering corruption. After everything he has been through Amitt deserves a safe and secure environment to live and work in. In this time of post truth politics the UK needs all the good journalists it can get; hopefully the asylum hearing will see it that way too.

Conrad Bower

Further Information

 – You can show your support for Amitt’s asylum hearing by signing this petition

 – Amitt’s Asylum and Immigration Tribunal is 9.30 am Friday 28 October, 2 Piccadilly Plaza, Mosley Street, Manchester M1 4AH.

Photo of Amitt Bhatt: Amitt Bhatt

Featured image via Wikimedia Commons and Wikimedia Commons

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