At a time when actor-politician Ramya has bizarrely had a sedition case filed against her for claiming “Pakistan is not hell”, let me test the waters of sedition by suggesting that there is quite simply no better country for an Indian journalist to report from outside of India than Pakistan. Between 1995 and 2004, I was fortunate to travel several times to Pakistan, each visit a revelation and an occasion to break new ground. So, we were the first Indian TV crew to track down Dawood Ibrahim’s house in Karachi way back in 1996, we did a special feature on the MQM militia in Karachi during the worst years of the civil war in the city, we reported from Lashkar terror camps and the Jamaat ud Dawa headquarters in Muridke, we roamed the arms bazaars of Peshawar, and almost managed to get to Osama bin Laden in his “cave” along the Pak-Afghan border (our Pakistani “contact” backed out at the last moment when he realised that our visa didn’t extend on that trip beyond Lahore and Islamabad).
We also reported on the more positive aspects of Pakistani civil society. We profiled the remarkable work of Abdul Sattar Edhi and his peace foundation in Karachi, reported from the sets of a Pakistani TV serial (they were the rage in this country in the early 1990s), met with Pakistan’s first woman rock band artist, and did a feature on Food Street in Lahore. We even joined Lalu Prasad on a goodwill tour once, where in Islamabad’s Sunday market the Bihar leader was such a draw that the market came to a standstill (in true Lalu style he held up a potato for the cameras and shouted: “Pakistan mein aloo, Bihar mein Laloo” to wild applause).
It wasn’t an easy country to report from since an Indian television crew was looked upon with great suspicion but that is what made it so challenging and enjoyable. We were tailed on every visit by an ISI “agency” car. The car would be at some distance but it would always be around. On one visit, we decided to stop at a McDonald’s before boarding our return flight. The “agency” car had been chasing us for a week and we thought it was time to give them a break. So, we went up to them and offered a burger and some French fries. They didn’t take the burger but gently picked up a plate of fries from us.
On every visit, the warmth and hospitality didn’t change irrespective of the prevailing political situation. During AB Vajpayee’s Lahore bus yatra, the feasting never seemed to end: Never before have more kebabs been consumed by so few Indians in so little time! During the Kargil war, one actually went for cricket practice with Pakistani prime minister Nawaz Sharif because it seemed to be the only way to get an interview with him. “Just make sure you don’t get him out,” was the gentle word of advice from his then media adviser Mushahid Hussain. After practise, not only did we get the interview, but were then treated to a lavish buffet at the prime minister’s residence. Cricket and food we realised are the two ways to Sharif’s heart: While we wanted to focus on the war in the mountains, Sharif was intent on comparing the gajar halwa in Pakistan with what he had tasted in old Delhi.
The comparisons between India and Pakistan are a favourite subject for polite dinner conversation in Pakistani homes, a country that is still manically obsessed with the “big brother” across the LoC. Then, whether it was comparing the all-round cricket merits of Imran Khan and Kapil Dev or the voices of a Noor Jehan and a Lata Mangeshkar, the sense of constant one-upmanship is something one had to quickly learn to deal with. As was the hostility every time one broached the Kashmir question and the role of the Pakistani State in sponsoring terror in the Valley. In the period before Pakistan itself became a “victim” of terror, there was an unwillingness to accept that any distinction between terrorists and freedom fighters was spurious and only ended up rationalising violence against innocents.
Two years ago, while attending a “people to people” track two dialogue in Karachi, one sensed for the first time a change in the mood of our Pakistani interlocutors. The realisation was slowly creeping in that India had left Pakistan far behind and the years of supporting terror militia had created a Frankenstein that was devouring the country from within. And yet, the “emotional” support for the Kashmiri cause has never left the Pakistani psyche: Even the most rational Pakistani ends up somehow justifying the low intensity conflict in Kashmir. Years of military rule, radical Islamisation and a State whose very existence is premised on hostility to India has compromised the average Pakistani’s capacity to deal with its neighbour in a mature manner.
Which is why the best way to deal with Pakistan is to neither romanticise nor demonise the country but to inject a pragmatic, business-like approach to diplomatic relations. We must accept that Pakistan is neither hell nor is it heaven, it is simply schizophrenic in its attitude towards India and Indians. In which other country will Hizbul Mujahideen chief Syed Salahuddin lock you up in a room because he thinks you are an Indian “spy” and yet that very evening the pianist in the hotel will sing “suhani raat dhal chuki” in your honour? That is Pakistan for you: A country whose love-hate relationship needs to be handled with care.
Post-script: In the 2004 cricket series, I took my then nine-year-old son to watch the deciding one-dayer in Lahore. That was the series when the Pakistani crowds would chant “Balaji zara dheere chalo” in support of the Indian fast bowler. When India won the game, a distraught Pakistani supporter offered the Pakistani flag to my son. My son took it as a gift and put it up on the wall in his room. Then it was seen as a goodwill gesture: In today’s India, it might be sadly seen as an act of sedition.
Rajdeep Sardesai is a senior journalist and author
The views expressed are personal