August issue 2004
Decades of Living Dangerously
In over two decades of journalism, I would have to say that of a cast of many, it is the Pakistan Muslim League and the Punjab police which have provided me my most unforgettable moments.
A colourful member of another political party, however, comes a close second: once, as I had the mortification of watching, he decided to unzip in an elevator. Fortunately, the lift doors opened at that moment and we (the rest being a bunch of foreigners) trooped out. No one looked back. Talk of ‘shock and awe!’
As steel-tipped batons rained on us at the FIA centre in Rawalpindi, the thick winter jacket I had on took some of the brunt, but the bruises told their own story. The Muslim League’s war against the Jang/News had entered a new phase: the FIA was employed to ‘steal’ our newsprint leaving us with nothing for the next morning’s edition. We had decided to fight back. Hence our stopover at the FIA centre.
Nawaz Sharif’s Punjab police had been well-trained in intimidation tactics, but it was the outcome of the homework the outfit’s intelligence department had done that hurt more than the physical assault. As fellow colleagues tried to shield me from their batons, one of my tormentors remarked, “Give her the same treatment we gave her dog.” Another retorted, “Array yar, we killed the wrong bitch.” Suddenly the penny dropped: the vet had told me my German shepherd, my only live-in companion, had been poisoned to death. Now I knew by whom. This was one bruise that would not heal with time.
Word gets around. Late that night the helpless but rather kind-hearted Interior Minister, Shujaat Hussain, called to apologise and reassure me that he had nothing to do with what had transpired. When he offered to send police personnel to ‘protect’ me, I nearly freaked out, saying it was the police I needed protection from!
Years later, we were still appearing in court to attend hearings pertaining to the case since it had not been squashed. We realised that though the government of the day was not interested in pursuing the case, we still had to get bail, because the charges against us could still have us cooling our heels behind bars.
Finally, there was a day of judgement. A policeman with chains and handcuffs in a transparent plastic shopping bag parked himself next to us and began to ominously rattle the bag. When he did this for the umpteenth time, I asked what his problem was. “He is letting you know how much pleasure he will have putting the contents of his shopping bag around your wrists and ankles if the judgement goes against you,” was the reply I got.
During Benazir Bhutto’s ‘Long March’ against Nawaz Sharif, we learnt that the intelligence agencies had ensured some journalists could not enter Islamabad. My editor decided that no matter what, we still needed the story. He asked me to sneak into Islamabad and spend the night at Benazir Bhutto’s house. That would give us an exclusive. I managed, and Benazir and I chatted late into the night.
We talked about how the government would react to the Long March as the capital was already under siege. “I am not really worried at all, except for the baby of course,” she remarked casually. It was only then that I realised the leader of the opposition was pregnant. It also explained her nocturnal nibbling. And I wonder if Farooq Leghari and Naseerullah Babar knew of her condition as they shielded her the next day from the brute force of the agencies.
The next government around, it was the ‘Train March.’ A colleague and I took a camera crew to cover Nawaz Sharif (for Doordarshan) as he started his novel protest campaign against the PPP government. Now in opposition, the Muslim League was docile, polite and ever so cooperative. On board, we chatted with Nawaz Sharif for a while, and as we left his compartment, one Leaguer asked another, “What is she doing filming us?” Replied Ejaz ul Haq, “Must be footage that she wants to hand over to the ISI.” Having been raised on funds pocketed from the ISI by his father during the Afghan war, this surely must have been the height of cheek. It was the only time in my life that I allowed better sense to prevail: my gut response would have been to attack him. But I bided my time.
I got my chance not long after at a PML get-together at a hotel. I walked straight up to him and then there was no stopping me. Caught completely off guard, he started muttering excuses, denying what he had said.
Allegations of Washington’s inordinate interest in running governments by proxy in Islamabad, even orchestrating the appointment of Prime Ministers and ministers of their choice, is not a new phenomenon. Way back, when Benazir Bhutto was trying to cobble together her first cabinet, her hands were tied not only by an unfriendly President and Chief of Army Staff, but also by Washington which wanted its say. At a diplomatic gathering, we tried to chat up the American diplomats present to unearth, at the very least, who the future foreign minister would be. “Sahibzada Yakub will make it to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs,” a senior American diplomat whispered, inspiring me to leave the reception immediately to file an ‘exclusive.’
General Aslam Beg’s attempt at glasnost when he invited the media to cover the Zarb-e-Momin exercise across the Punjab, provided us much food for thought: clearly this was one army whose top generals were not interested in war. Desperate to use the loo, two other women journalists and I sneaked into the caravan assigned to one general. We had seen him in the dining area and assumed it was safe to enter.
It was quite a revelation. The grandeur of makeshift living quarters — and that too during a military exercise — was nothing short of mind-boggling. Nothing, it seemed, was too much for the generals’ comfort. After I wrote a piece on the experience, my father, a soldier from the old school, was shell-shocked: was the army really only using mineral water? And that was the least of it. If only the photographs we took had been published! As for the rest of my information, that fell prey to the editor’s brief regarding word count.
Wait for the book!