Special to MxM: Extract 01 from Meena Menon’s Reporting Pakistan: On Balochistan, Mama Qadeer & the Interview

14 Jun,2017

By Meena Menon


It was after my interview with [Mama] Qadeer, carried on the op-edpage of The Hindu in March 2014, that I was summoned for agrilling at the external publicity office for an hour. Without my asking, Qadeer had denied he was funded by the RAW. (This was one of the sentences highlighted in yellow when I was questioned by the external publicity official.) He said families contributed money and there was no reason to seek funds. Now the trickyquote which became the headline for the interview: ‘After I formed my organisation I got a lot of support from people. If there is areferendum in Balochistan, people will vote for independence.’ Areyou sure, I asked him, a little surprised. He nodded vehemently.


The interview with Qadeer was not a secret, subversive activity on my part. I was among the many journalists who walked with him after he entered Islamabad and that was the only time he agreed to give me an interview. In any case, he did say this to others before me, so I didn’t see the need for this grilling. The official’s take was that I should be writing on art and culture and not on political movements. Did I write on Kashmir, for instance, he snarled at me over tea, which was meant to soften the blow.


I felt they really didn’t want Indian correspondents unless westayed within some harmless plugs or press release writing limits.The officer hadn’t read the whole article except for the part where Qadeer denies he is a RAW agent as is popularly believed. All the portions which they found unwholesome were highlightedin bright yellow and thrust under my nose. The dialogue went on these lines: ‘Is this what you came here to write?’ He accused me of fudging the entire interview and he kept asking me for my notes or recording.


I was quite alarmed and hid my notesafter I went home. My integrity was in question and the official was crude and nasty. I told him when I was invited to cover the Mohenjo Daro festival, his office didn’t respond to my request to go there and that all my requests to travel and write on artand culture were met with radio silence. In Islamabad what art and culture I could write on had already been covered by me. I had by then interviewed Abida Parveen, and written a detailed feature on Haroon the creator of the immensely popular cartoon series Burka Avenger.


He then asked me whether I had writtenon Kashmir and if I supported the Kashmiri movement, and soon. He said it would be difficult to process my visa extension ifI did stories like this which was a deliberate attempt to malignthe country. He raked up every unpleasant thing he could andit went on in this vein for some time. His subordinate officerwhom we usually dealt with later said that Balochistan was anextremely sensitive issue and it usually upset the government no end. It’s a paranoia not restricted to Indians, and CarlottaGall from the New York Times was punched in the face and hercomputer, notebooks and cellphone were taken away in Quetta in 2006.


With the baggage of India’s role in East Pakistan, Pakistan constantly harped on India ‘destabilising’ Balochistan by funding and supporting the insurgents. Indian journalists were seen as RAW agents, and so this article on ‘Mama Baloch’ was a no-no. I had gone for a talk given by the author Ayesha Jalal at the Quaidi-Azam University where she warned the audience about treating the Baloch issue the way matters in East Pakistan were dealt with.She said, ‘The lessons of 1971 centred on secession versus power sharing . . . You cannot accuse people who want a share of power at the centre as secessionist or treasonable and by doing so we will go the 1971 way. Power sharing has eluded us over and over again.’


It’s a signal warning that is going unheeded; yet, all thatmatters is whether India and its agents (journalists included) aretrying to destabilise Balochistan or infiltrate the TTP.


Some of my Pakistani friends also privately wondered why I had written it and said there was no need for the paper to have highlighted it. I was quite puzzled by this attitude. Correspondents before me had gone to Quetta and written about issues there and there have been phone calls in protest. But they had not been expelled. I knew then, more or less, that it would be difficult to report from this country with all these dos and don’ts. I also told this official that I had written so many positive stories on the country, and how come they were not highlighted in yellow and shoved under my nose? I didn’t tell him I knew for a fact that one of my stories was similarly highlighted but in appreciation,and that he had not called me in to praise me then! I realised it was only the so-called ‘unpopular’ or critical stuff that stayed with them and with most people I knew. However, on this count, even Pakistani journalists were not spared. I spoke to journalists who admitted that the security agencies had asked them not to cover the long march or give publicity to Qadeer.


I really had no intention of courting trouble, nor was it an attempt to destabilise Pakistan, but few believed me. I got a lotof emails appreciating the interview, including from Balochis,which made me feel a little better. Here was a man who marchedover 3000 kilometres to draw attention to a serious crisis; it was a great story and I felt it had to be written. Qadeer met the UNand EU officials and demanded NATO intervention to resolve the problem, which was rather brazen. I told the official it was an interview, and I was only reporting it. Nowhere had I said Balochistan must be made an independent state. He couldn’ tunderstand or was obtuse about the entire issue. The grillingended badly; he was a state-of-the-art people shredder.


Extracts republished with permission from the publisher, Penguin Random House India

Reporting Pakistan

By Meena Menon

344 pages, hard cover

Price: Rs 599 (Kindle: Rs 254.50)


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