My first time in the enemy capital as a journo – Part One

Twenty-four hours before my departure to the enemy lands, I still had not received my visa. This time my rushed, jam-packed travel to India was a bit of an identity switch. From a development professional, a Sufi devotee and a culture-vulture, I was now a journalist representing none other than The Friday Times. Accordingly, I sat on a plane with pockets full of visitors cards and little idea of what this junket was all about.

Indeed, the peace industry across the globe is an unbroken series of junkets, high-sounding statements and admittedly a lot of fun. I was travelling with ten other Pakistani media persons: from Urdu, English, electronic and print varieties. Luckily, I knew Cyril Almeida of DAWN, our Shaukat Piracha (who also works for AAJ) and Asim Awan of Express-Tribune – there was little awkwardness in getting familiar with the group.

Between the two high profile visits of the Indian Home and Foreign Ministers this was a visit to give Pakistani media representatives access to the Indian mood and where it stood. Perhaps, an effort to forge a better understanding of what Indians were thinking and to hear of the Pakistani concerns from the non-state side. A tacit and slightly belated acknowledgement that the Pakistani media has arrived (perhaps nowhere) and has entered the power-game.

The more we fight, the more similar we look. After the 2008 tragic incidents in Mumbai, the Indian and Pakistani media displayed their raw power and the ability to shape public opinion. In India, the media stirred up jingoism even in the most pacifist human, while in Pakistan the India-centric paranoia and its paradoxical counterweight – our nuclear prowess – were drummed up by idiot box gurus.

For this reason, our trip was meant to be eventful and perhaps relevant too.

Bukhara diplomacy

After the usual PIA delays, we got into Delhi much later than anticipated. Luckily, the immigration counters were friendlier this time. Our High Commissioner was on the same flight and this was a good chance to have chitchat right there. Ali Zafar, a budding Bollywood star was also entering Delhi for the promotion of his new film – Tere Bin Laden – that remains banned in Pakistan due to its over- the-top name.

We had a set of earnest hosts adept at taking care of journos. We were greeted and whisked away to a luxury hotel. Delhi was hot, humid and unbearable – the rains were expected but the delayed monsoon cycle had dashed all hopes of a respite. Of course, inside the hotel one was miles away from the real India and its temperature. In this make-believe world, we all enjoyed a dinner at Bukhara, now a globally-acclaimed restaurant for its association with the Clintons, who loved the cuisine there. The food was fantastic – a medley of tikkas and roasts and tenderly grilled vegetables and paneer. Whilst the name and moorings of the restaurant is Central Asian, the cuisine had a distinctively Pakhtun aura and flavour.

Next morning, we all huddled together for an incredibly long day. We met the Foreign Office bureaucrats first. The thrust of the briefing there was on how well India was advancing as an economy. At this point Dr Moeed Peerzada said that all such facts were available on the Internet. The conversation therefore drifted towards the inevitable: Terrorism, Mumbai and Pakistan’s reluctance to ‘do more’. However, as such conversations are, diplomacy on both sides was maintained, and never did the discussions go haywire. Later, in our meeting with the impressive Foreign Secretary Nirupama Rao, we had a replay of the earlier discussions, but with a strong signal that at least the Foreign Office was under instructions to demonstrate its quest for peace.

Rao, a gentle South Indian, emphasized creative solutions and the need to think outside the box. Who could disagree with that? But the limits of creativity set by Indian public opinion are tricky. Mumbai hovers all around. There is not a single sentence or idea that is not laced with Mumbai-talk. As we found out later in the trip, Indian public opinion, shaped by a ubiquitous media and national security lobby, is firm on this issue. Now, one can only imagine what a group of eleven journalists can say or do when faced with such an immense mood swing.

In any case, we tried our best. For instance, Anjum Rehman, a sprightly anchor on Express 24/7, time and again mentioned how Pakistanis shared the grief when the Mumbai killings were taking place. Asim Awan, also of Express group, mentioned that terrorism was abominable and unacceptable for a common Pakistani, regardless of where it takes place. Kamran Shahid, a popular TV anchor in Urdu, kept on highlighting how Pakistan itself is a victim of terror, and that there was a need to see the larger picture.

By then David Hedley, another misguided missile, had made all his ‘confessions’. Therefore, the Pakistan-victim brand did not sell, at least in these formal meetings. Privately, people did show a lot of concern and empathy, I must add.

Walking within the North and South Blocks of the Raj Secretariat in Delhi is a delight. The majesty and ambiance of the architecture, credited to Luytens, an English urban planner especially brought to Delhi to design magnificent buildings, has remained intact. Capturing a few images was not possible, as photography was banned here. Good old security policies redundant in this day and age.

All in the day’s work

At lunchtime, we were introduced to the motley stars of the Indian media. The big publishing houses and TV channels were all represented. A robust discussion took place around the table, that was thankfully informal and light. But the issues remained the same. There was a tacit admission by some among the Indian galaxy that media owners need to be brought to the Indo-Pak peace table, given their influence and outreach. Indrani Baghchi present there made some practical suggestions. Her detailed analysis after a day or two referred to the need to engage with the Pakistan Army as a strategic counterpart. Of course, the recent rounds of US-Pak dialogue have set a precedent of sorts.

By the time this pleasant lunch was over we were once again packed into a minibus and taken to the overwhelming secretariat to meet with India’s exceptional politician: Home Minister, P. Chidambaram. This was a short meeting, where we were advised not to take notes. Dressed in a white Mundu, a traditional South Indian dress (a distant and grander cousin of the dhoti), Chidmabaram spent half an hour with us. Once the meeting was over he rushed out for another appointment with little security, no hangers-on, in a modest Ambassador car. Indian politicians know how to keep their optics right. Unlike our crop of pseudo-regal, extravagant politicos, one rarely finds an Indian politician displaying his or her wealth, howsoever corrupt they might be.

Chidambram’s piercing intellect is the first thing you notice about him. While he tried his best to be diplomatic, his razor-sharp style made many of our colleagues rethink their questions and comments. He had just returned from his Pakistan visit and appeared to be quite satisfied with his discussions there. Interestingly, he was all praise for Rehman Malik, his counterpart in Islamabad, and called him a ‘capable’ investigator. Of course, the discussion, as expected, centred on Mumbai.

I raised the issue of information-deficit that ails the Indian mainstream media and by extension public opinion about Pakistan. Unlike us, Indians do not hear much about Pakistan, other than gory accounts of terrorism, spy thriller accounts of the ISI, and of course Mr Hafiz Saeed, who seems to have done well for himself. It is not too easy to scare a country with a billion plus population, a mammoth army and nuclear weapons, not to mention an eight per cent growth rate. For all the wrong reasons, the militant groups have succeeded in their mission, where millions of peace-loving Indians and Pakistanis have miserably failed.

Chidambaram agreed with my point on information, loosening media controls and rethinking unnecessarily arbitrary visa regimes. I also restated like an old parrot how every belligerent move by India undermined the chances for civilian supremacy here. Alas, this vicious circle is relentless.

So much for the information deficit on Pakistan. While the policymakers knew about the alleged jihadi camps, they had no clue that Bollywood films were now screened across Pakistan!

Tanking the thought

As if this day was not packed enough, our hosts had planned another meeting. The jatha of Pak journos arrived at the Observer Research Foundation. This ‘think-tank’ is managed by former diplomats, generals and bureaucrats, with the help of independent researchers, and is a well-ensconced Delhi talk shop. Two sweet old men – one a former Ambassador to Pakistan and another a Lahori who migrated and became the Naval chief – chaired the session. Pakistan was under the spotlight once again, and we all aired our views as well as pointed out the holes in the arguments presented to us by eminent analysts there.

Jyoti Malhotra, an independent journalist, challenged the discourse and rightfully pointed out how the bigwigs, while in service, toe the establishment line, but after their retirement turn into peaceniks. Saeed Naqvi, another well-known Indian journalist, made some incisive comments and hinted how Musharraf’s offers fell on deaf ears in India. Abid Hussain, former Indian Ambassador to the US, argued for a new peace framework, as older recipes had failed. Hussain also made us all swoon over his chaste renditions of Urdu poetry amid landlocked discussions.

Yet another event had been planned which I conveniently escaped, as I had to make my customary visit to the dargahs of Nizamuddin Auliya and Amir Khusrau. A visit in the night is the best experience, when the Qawwals are getting into a trance and magic takes over the dargah compound. But my visit was followed by a hysterical call from home about the suicide attack at Data Darbar. For many minutes, an imaginary shell struck me, for one could never have thought of this happening in reality.

As I made my blog entry that night, the fear of losing the Lahore I knew was palpable and immense. I did not know that this was to be picked up by the international media, and for the next twenty-four hours, I was engrossed in soothing my nerves by endless email and phone interviews, including a short hop to the BBC offices in Delhi. A catharsis of sorts.

Our day two in Delhi was also chaotic. Starting from a fascinating briefing at The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) to a lively meeting at Indian Express, the day was informal and allowed for a wider interaction than the purely official ‘hard-talk’. Shekhar Gupta at Indian Express amused us with his spot-on analyses, as well as his lighthearted banter about the ‘vigil’ crowd at Wagah, and how the Punjabi nostalgia community had shrunk to nothingness. Identifying newer peace lobbies was a clear message from this day. Seema Chishty, another editor at the Express, highlighted how Indian Muslims were also part of mainstream public opinion regarding Mumbai. Pakistan, we were told, needed to take this into account. I wondered if the extent and intensity of this position was even known across the border.

From the Express we set out to the Indian Council of World Affairs where another group of serving diplomats and former Ambassadors had organized a big meeting with Delhi-based journalists and ‘intellectuals’. Kamran Shahid and Shaukat Piracha spoke from our side. Shahid was vociferous about Hafiz Saeed obsessions, while Piracha focused on how people-to-people contact was essential to the future of this region. Now the questions from a large group, assembled in a town hall style, were not all that sweet. There was bitterness and lament, and the ‘do more’ mantra was loudly chanted.

After the chairpersons (former diplomats of course) summed up the proceedings, echoing a tough line on Pakistan, we all had tea together. Now, this was a different world, amiable, warm and hospitable. Pran Neville was also there, who met me with boundless affection, and a few other acquaintances were found among the melee around the spicy dhokla and tender pieces of barfi.

Jyoti Malhotra waited for Shaukat Piracha and me while we gave countless interviews to young journalists on the peace process. Gita from X news was the most impressive in her articulation. Later, Jyoti took us to another Delhi watering hole: the India International Centre, where we sat around Delhi’s gifted, sometimes self-conscious, intellectuals and artists. IIC is a space that Lahore lacks, for its hangouts are now class-driven, where ordinary mortals are not allowed in.

Raza Rumi is a writer and policy expert based in Lahore.

FIRST PUBLISHED IN THE FRIDAY TIMES