Dissidence

An Iranian Spark in India

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On 12 June 2009, Mahmud Ahmedinejad came to power in Iran in a disputed election, which triggered a short-lived democratic movement. In Pune, which has a sizeable population of Iranian students, there was a flicker of protest, but it was immediately snuffed out. A reminiscence

Iranians in exile count about 3 million, most of them living in North America and Europe. But some of the young Iranians who decide to leave their country choose India for their studies. Navid (name changed) left Iran about eight years ago to take up a bachelor’s degree at Pune University. Iranian passports are a red rag to many Western countries and it was easier to obtain a student visa for India. Initially, money also played a role in his preference for India. In those days he used to pay a monthly $ 200 for his Pune flat, but since then expenses have more than doubled.

The common and most important reason why many Iranians go abroad for their studies is to escape oppression at home: “Here no one asks you about your religion, the way of your clothes and your private life. Iranians are fed up with all this.” Navid experienced “all this”. His father was a professor of philosophy who had to resign when he lectured on Marxism, and spies in his class reported to the authorities. At home, Navid grew up between books and inherited his father’s passion for philosophy. When he expressed the wish to study philosophy, his father advised him to choose another subject. In Iran, philosophy and everything that requires an unbiased mind is likely to get you in trouble. Discouraged, and only for himself, Navid wrote articles on subjects he was interested in during his youth: philosophy, religion and politics. He made it a habit to destroy his writings afterwards. “The smoke of the burning papers was a relief,” he remembers, “but I also kept a few of them.”

One day, Navid was stopped on the street by some men. They asked him to work for the intelligence services. If he did, they said, he would be admitted to any university of his choice, even without the tough entry exam which every Iranian student has to pass. He refused and they put more pressure on him over the next few days. The men knew that Navid was a sociable guy with a large circle of friends—ideal as a source of information. The demeanour of the authorities changed when they found out that he had told his father about their encounters. “They put a scarf on my eyes and took me to a secret place. They asked me whether I believed in the supreme leader and threatened to kill my father.” This time, it was only a few slaps and a burning cream which they applied to his skin.

But when the police came and searched his home, they found the few articles he had kept. From then on, Navid was tortured and repeatedly taken away. Two scars on his chest remain from the day they tied him to an electric chair. Another time, he was put into a tiny room painted completely in red and illuminated by red neon lights. “At first I thought it was funny, but after 1o minutes I became completely mad,” he recounts. When he still refused to cooperate, the authorities told him his options: Either leave the country or they would have to kill him and make it look like an accident. Friends advised him to file a human rights case with Amnesty International. Navid was too afraid to do that, he didn’t want to put his family in danger. That is when he left for India.

Pune has the largest number of Iranian students in India, about 8,000. Navid knows the community well. On weekends he likes to meet his friends at Shisha Café, run by Iranians who have settled in Pune with their families. Here you can smoke a hookah, grab a copy of Persian poetry, order Iranian dishes and hear chats in Farsi at all tables. Pune has an Iranian doctor, there are Iranian schools and Iranian bakeries. In Navid’s neighbourhood many of the announcements on the noticeboard are written in Farsi.

Most Iranian students in Pune have come to escape from the clutches of the government, but a few are also studying on government scholarships. The two groups don’t mix and the students who receive government support are generally distrusted by the others. “I can tell by their behaviour which of us have been sent by the government. All these girls have to wear a headscarf,” Navid says.

The Iranian government has established institutions in Pune. There is an Iranian association in Pune which also functions as a student centre, located in an Imambara complex, a hall for Shia processions. Both are affiliated to the Iranian consulate in Mumbai. Even in Pune, Navid carefully minds with whom he shares his thoughts and opinion.

The weeks before Iran’s 2009 presidential elections were a time of hope for young Iranians worldwide. They wanted to get rid of Mahmud Ahmadinejad, a president who had curbed social and political freedom, imposed tough censorship rules and estranged the youth with his aggressive conservative rhetoric. In the four years of Ahmadinejad’s governance, inflation rate has risen to 25 per cent with unemployment reaching a high of 15 per cent. Strikingly, almost 70 per cent of the unemployed were youth between the age of 15 and 29.

It was clear that the most of youth votes would go to the reformist candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi. Facebook groups in his support sprang up, students turned political, gathered in the streets and very few doubted his victory on the election day of 12 June 2009. In Pune, Navid went to the Iranian association to cast his vote. “At 9 the next morning, my friend who had Iranian channels on satellite TV called me and asked: ‘Guess who won the elections?’” Navid couldn’t believe his ears when he heard the news: they were declaring Ahmadinejad the winner, with 62 per cent of the votes cast. 

Protests in Iran began the day after the elections and grew bigger and more violent with up to 3 million being reported on the streets on 15 June. Dozens were killed and thousands imprisoned in the weeks to come. Navid felt helpless, watching his peers leading a protest movement in Iran—and he was sitting in India. Two days after the election he went to the Iranian association and asked what millions of young Iranians were asking those days: “Where is my vote?” Nobody answered. There was a gathering in the Imambara to celebrate the birth anniversary of Fatima, the daughter of Prophet Muhammad. “How could they celebrate somebody who had died more than 1,000 years ago while young people in Iran were being killed for demanding their democratic rights?” Navid wonders.

Then, Neda died. Neda Agha-Soltan was a 26-year-old girl who stood on the roadside and watched the protests when she was shot by a Basij militia, a pro-government volunteer force. Her death was filmed with a mobile camera, the video uploaded and watched a million times. Neda became a symbol of the youth’s resistance—she was called a martyr.

Meanwhile, Iranians around the globe were demonstrating in whichever country they lived. They were eager to show solidarity with their friends in Iran and unite against the injustices they had to face. There were large demonstrations in European capitals, in Canada, in Japan and the United States, as well as Malaysia and Singapore—but not in Pune.

“The day after Neda was shot, I couldn’t stand it any longer. We had to do something. I have about 200 contacts in my cell phone. I sent messages to all and asked them to come to the Iranian association for a joint protest.”

When Navid and his friends arrived at the Iranian association, police had already blocked the road with cars and lathis (batons). They had found out about Navid’s plan. Navid knows Indian bureaucracy well from the hours spent in police and immigration offices: “I immediately left to seek permission from Pune’s Deputy Commissioner of Police. I told them it was urgent. But they said to me he was not available. Instead I was brought to the additional deputy commissioner (ACP) of police. I was ready to pay him any amount of money if we could only go and voice our feelings.” But the ACP sat behind his desk and didn’t budge an inch. Navid soon learnt why. Pune’s police had received a request from the Iranian consulate in Mumbai to prevent any demonstrations by Iranian students in Pune. The officer told Navid the reason that request might have been entertained: Iran and India were discussing a lucrative economic project—the construction of a gas pipeline running from Iran through Pakistan to India.

The ACP’s order did not stop Navid and his friends. They moved to Pune’s Kalyani Nagar with their green bands and T-Shirts, and demonstrated until the police came. The officers shouted at the protesters and dispersed the crowd. At least for a short while, Navid had become part of the international green movement. “I have a responsibility for Iran and I feel ashamed in the face of my brave brothers in Iran. I know what it means; I myself have experienced what our government is capable of.” He sees it as his duty to connect with his friends in Iran on the streets of Pune. But Navid is also afraid: “If police catches me here in India, it’s very bad. They will directly deport me back to Iran.” The memories of torture still linger on and Navid dreads returning to his home country. As for now, he cannot be certain what will happen to him the moment he comes back to Iran. Will they remember him? Will they stop him again? To Iranians like Navid, political change is not only a distant aspiration but a matter of making their lives safer and more livable.

The movement of June 2009 was the most serious threat in Iran since the foundation of the Islamic Republic. It was in many ways a pioneer of the movements now shaking the thrones of tyrants in the Arab world: it was youth-driven, organised on Facebook and Twitter, not claimed by any ideology and peaceful in its demand for change.

Two years have passed since the weeks of unrest. Small protests occurred in February and March this year. Nobody dares to predict how long the regime can still hold on to its sceptre. Ramin Jahanbegloo, professor of political science at the University of Toronto, is one of the prominent thinkers of Iran’s exiled community and not a stranger to India. In 2006 and 2007 he was Rajni Kothari Professor of Democracy at the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies in New Delhi. Whenever he comes to India and talks on Iran, Jahanbegloo likes to mention the cultural links between the two ancient civilisations. He also points at the ‘Gandhian side’ of Iran’s green protesters, who showed their dissent by peaceful means. Jahanbegloo himself has written two books on Gandhi and non-violence in Persian, the second one already published in its 4th edition. Because of the movement’s non-violent nature, all works by Gandhi—including his autobiography—were out of circulation during the days of protest in Iran. Many young Iranians were inspired by Gandhi when they took to the streets in 2009 and peacefully protested for change. But it is a great irony that in the country of Gandhi their peaceful protest had to take a back seat to economical ties.