The arrest of Syed Mohammed Ahmad Kazmi on March 6 this year had left many stunned. A well-established journalist, accredited with the government’s Press Information Bureau (PIB), and someone who regularly interacted with top politicians, he suddenly came to be described as a player in an Iranian plot to attack Israeli diplomats in India. Convinced he was being framed because of his harsh and vocal views on American and Israeli policy, many had rallied around Kazmi to campaign for his release. He was finally granted bail by the Supreme Court on October 19 and stepped out of Tihar after spending seven months in jail. His first interview since his release, questions related directly to the case were answered by his lawyer (see accompanying story), but Kazmi himself told Debarshi Dasgupta that he was threatened in order to make him confess. He also spoke of his social isolation since his release and claims he was targeted for his critical views on India’s foreign policy. Excerpts:
How were you treated in jail?
Torture is not just physical. For me, it was more mental trauma, almost unbearable levels. There was always the uncertainty every morning of when I would be freed, if at all. I used to see the government’s version and could not believe it was actually me they were discussing. There were threats—from top officers—of having my children kidnapped, of having explosives recovered from my home or car. They told me I’d languish in jail if I didn’t tell them all, that my beard would grow so long in custody that even my children would not recognise me. On the whole, I have lost the social status that I once enjoyed. I was made a scapegoat just for my professional background.
Do you think you were picked up for your harsh political views on India’s close links with US/Israel and their role in global affairs?
You can judge it yourself from my television appearances. In this changing scenario, people do not like the truth. Probably, this was one of the reasons....
"There were threats—from top officers—of having my children kidnapped, of having explosives recovered from my home or car."
Would you still argue that India needs to correct its present course of foreign policy?
We need to have a foreign policy based on national interests, and not for short-term interests but long-term ones. A gas pipeline from Iran, Pakistan to India is not feasible but a gas pipeline from Turkmenistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan to India is feasible. Does it make sense?
What would your comments be on the current crisis in West Asia and India’s role in the region?
The MEA issued a balanced statement on the ongoing crisis between Israel and Palestine but we need to make tactical diplomatic moves, independent of western perceptions and objectives, if we have to emerge as an effective force in the region. We should, for instance, take into confidence the elected government of Hamas in Gaza and have diplomatic contacts with them and not just the Al Fatah faction. Powers on the ground need to be engaged more. For instance, Hezbollah, described as a terrorist entity by westerners, is a crucial player in Lebanon. You cannot form a government there without their support. We made mistakes in Iraq too. Post-Saddam, we could have furthered our business interests more had we nurtured close contacts with the guiding leaders in Najaf. And in Egypt, with the Muslim Brotherhood in power, the Americans and Israelis have done much more than India to establish close links with the new government. We are left behind since we are overcautious. I would argue we are an emerged power in this region, not an emerging one. America, on the other hand, is a weakening force in this region and we must further our independent role.
"We need to make tactical diplomatic moves, free of western perceptions and objectives, if we’re to be effective in West Asia."
You are viewed as a very harsh critic of Israel...
What do you mean by a critic? If you read just 60 years of Israel’s history, you’ll become a harsh critic of the country...just read it and analyse it. People do not want to question the way the state of Israel was created and ignore the way it’s being expanded illegally into Palestine every day. How much time do you need to undserstand the history and geography?
Has it been difficult to voice political opinions that match yours?
Prominent journalists who worked earlier for several years are off the screen for many years now for this reason. You name important journalists who worked around a decade earlier and are alive. All of them are sitting in their apartments when they should be editors. A prominent journalist who used to author leads for India Today is now leading a small-time Urdu paper. This is the changing situation of this country. This is part of a conspiracy.
Will you go back to doing what you did before your arrest?
I will resume writing my weekly column in Urdu on international affairs soon. My readers probably are waiting for my experiences in jail too. Besides, there is already the offer to go back to working for Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting’s Tehran Radio, to which I was contributing political reports every day for its Hindi service. I would also appear frequently on their Urdu channel, Seher TV.
"Just read 60 years of Israeli history and you’ll turn a harsh critic. People don’t want to question how the Israeli state was created."
Do you feel socially isolated post-bail?
While in jail, I wondered if people would come to see me or suspect me after my release. I decided not to initiate any meetings or make phone calls once out. Let me see who contacts me, I decided. This is still the position. A huge number of people came to receive me at Tihar Jail but there is one set who feel meeting me is something wrong. As far as my professional career is concerned, I do not know if I can go back to work with Doordarshan, maybe when I’m discharged.
Have you lost your PIB accreditation?
I just checked the website yesterday. It says my card is not ready. I had the card last year. This year’s was delayed for procedural reasons. Perhaps it was ready when I was arrested, maybe I could not collect it. But yesterday when I checked, it said the request is still under process. I feel they have suspended it and held it for the next season.
You got a lot of support from the public because you are a journalist. But there are many others behind bars, waiting for a free and fair trial. Are you going to undertake any work to help them?
I have full sympathy with those who are innocent and behind bars. I plan to work with anyone who fights for them in whatever way. I will work for justice.