BLF2020 | The Nine Lives of Pakistan

Neena Gopal, former editor of the Bangalore edition of the Deccan Chronicle, interviewed Declan Walsh, a foreign correspondent reporter who was formerly the Pakistan bureau chief for the New York Times. His book, The Nine Lives of Pakistan, is based on the people he had interacted with while reporting from Pakistan.

Neena Gopal begins by asking Declan Walsh about how he felt when he was ordered to leave Pakistan.

“The story started just before the elections in Islamabad” began Walsh, as he explained how he received a letter at midnight, that ordered him to leave the country. His visa was cancelled, and he was given just 12 hours to leave. Later, when he went to London, he attempted to come back to Pakistan. His inability to come back was the starting point of his book. He asked himself how he could narrate the story of what he’d seen- and came upon the inspiration of writing the book.

Neena went on to ask, “Did you feel like you’ve crossed a line?” in reference to his exile from Pakistan

Journalism, Walsh stated, had always been restricted in Pakistan. He reflected, in a detailed manner, on his adventures at Balochistan, and what he learnt about the culture of journalism there. Sensitive topics are often not covered by the local press and the publication of stories in world-renowned newspapers such as The Guardian, where Walsh previously worked, helped break the stigma surrounding these stories. He had never seen the expulsion coming. “They felt I’d overstayed my welcome.”

Neena proceeded to ask him about one of the chapters she’d found interesting- that of Azma Jahangir.

“Azma was undoubtedly impressive”. Azma Jahangir was one of the leading women in Pakistan, to raise her voice against the discriminations they faced. She led the resistance against the Pakistani restrictions. Walsh goes on to explain how Azma was particularly impressive as she used her privilege as a weapon. People viewed Azma as a traitor of her class and her place as a woman in society. Walsh chose to focus an entire chapter on Azma as he has considered her to be the best example. Azma Jahangir stood for diagnosing a problem when the state doesn’t act as neutral territory.

Neena Gopal, particularly interested in the relationship shared between Benazir Bhutto and Azma Jahangir, asked Walsh what his thoughts were about the same.

“Benazir and Azma had so much in common”, reflected Walsh very enthusiastically. Before Benazir Bhutto passed away, Azma Jahangir had a talk on a public forum, where she spoke about her relationship with Bhutto. Both Bhutto, as well as Azma, have criticised each other publicly and privately too. They shared a strange relationship that was bound by a common belief- a belief about what Pakistan would become. In the broader fight against the Pakistani military, Benazir had prepared to contest Musharraf. Azma, at the same time, was put behind bars by Musharraf. Their mutual relationship almost reached a full circle towards the end of their lives. The death of Bhutto, said Walsh in sombre tone, marked Azma very deeply. She used that moment to talk about the militants and called them “useless duffers”, laughed Walsh.

Neena Gopal brought the attention of the audience to another chapter she found interesting- to the one about Salman Wazir. She asked Walsh a very specific question- “Will the elite ever have a say in Pakistan?”

The debate is really between the ‘Progressive’ Pakistanis and the Extremists. The battle was about bringing a balance between these two approaches, and it was a battle that the likes of Azma Jahangir fought. “Blasphemy is an important problem and has gotten worse”, argued Walsh. He described the ‘institutionalization’ of blasphemy. In a rather hopeful attempt, Walsh felt that the youth of the Pakistani state have a very important role to play in voicing what the country should be like. Imran Khan, Walsh remembers, had based his election on young people, and has tried to tap into their ‘modern’ identity.

Walsh spoke about his interaction with Nawab Bakhtiyar. He was very impressed with the way the Nawab presented himself. He remembered how Nawab Bakhtiyar, or “Nawab Bakti”, as Walsh likes to call him, had even quoted Rabindranath Tagore’s prose to him. Walsh situated Baktiyar as a huge figure who had significant connections with the military. Baktiyar had come to Baluchistan due to a gas dispute but went on to become a part of a wider dispute. Walsh had found Baktiyar in exile, at Geneva. Even there, Baktiyar was leading armed groups in Pakistan. As a foreign correspondent journalist, Walsh thinks about the alarming ways and methods in which the Pakistanis prosecute their people.

When asked about the ISI and the Taliban. Walsh gave a brief history of the ISI and their growth since the 1980s. He thinks they are very good at manipulating the politics in Pakistan. Their involvement is strategic- and happens by supporting Islamist guerrilla organisations. He, however, finds many faults and criticisms concerning the ISI and points to their various disastrous attacks- “When you point to the failures of this spy agency, you see that at the strategic level, the chickens were coming home to roost at that point.”

Talking of Pakistan’s relationship with India, Declan said he knew a lot of people who came to India for business. With the cricket diplomacy that Musharraf and Manmohan Singh tried to establish, the relationship between Indians and Pakistanis were becoming better. The cultural desires of the people, however, had become hostage to politics. He sees how on both sides of the border, there is a yearning and desire for cultural linkages. He added, “To respond to your question on my relationship with the country, I think it would be cliché of me to say that it was warm. But what drew me to Pakistan were the people, and how they were open, to be frank about their lives, in terms of what was going on with them. As a reporter, that was incredibly gratifying”

Neena found it wonderful that, despite being thrown out of the country, Walsh went on to write a book about his journey in Pakistan. The session ended with Neena Gopal congratulating Declan Walsh on his fabulous book, and recommended it to everyone to read.

About the Author: Anusha is a final year undergraduate student pursuing English Hons at Christ University. She can usually be found expressing her thoughts in the genres of social concerns and satires, often accompanied with a cup of chai. She currently writes for TheSeer.

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BLF2020 | When the Headline Is the Story – Amandeep Sandhu, Neena Gopal and Nirmala Govindrajan With Aruna Nambiar

Writer and editor, Aruna Nambiar was in conversation with Neena Gopal, Amandeep Sahu and Nirmala Govindraj. A journalist for thirty-seven years, Neena Gopal is also the author of ‘The Assassination of Rajiv Gandhi’. Amandeep Sahu has authored two novels, of which ‘Roll of Honour’ was nominated for The Hindu Prize 2013. Journalist and social sector documentarian Nirmala Govindarajan’s new novel ‘Taboo’ has been shortlisted for the Rabindranath Tagore Literary Prize, 2020. As Aruna pointed out, the one common thing among these three authors was that their books were all inspired from their real life experiences and the subject of their books have been burning the headlines for months together. 

The three authors then spoke of their experiences that shaped their lives and writing.

Neena Gopal went on to talk about the persona of Rajiv Gandhi, his last interview with her and the happenings of the day when he was assassinated. She also briefed on consequences that followed. Aruna also asked her of the various conspiracy theories around Rajiv’s assassination. Neena thought that although the blame was pinned on the LTTE there was more to it than what met the eye. She spoke of how Rajiv overturned every decision that was made by Indira Gandhi and how it was a grave mistake to send Indian troops to Sri Lanka. She also opined that Rajiv was probably tricked by Jayewardene who used Indian forces for his own political ambitions. She mentioned how all information about LTTE’s role in the assassination of Rajiv came from Ranasinghe Premadasa and SITs mess up with Sivanesan’s arrest in Bangalore. She also spoke of Rajiv’s meeting with General Zia, the back-channeled peace talk with Pakistan and that Mossad and CIA did not see India as a friendly nation. Speaking of Rahul Gandhi, she said he has a long way to go and agrees with Aruna that he shouldn’t be referred to as a ‘young’ leader anymore. 

Amandeep Sahu spoke of Punjab, his family, his personal experiences as a boy in the midst of a political hellfire.When asked about how some paint him as a supporter of the Khalistani movement, Amandeep explained that it’s the work of trolls. Amandeep has been very vocal in his support for the ongoing farmers protest and that has irked some right wing supporters who call him pro-Khalistani. However, the translation of his novel ‘Roll of Honour’ in Punjabi titled ‘Gwah De Fanah Hon Ton Pehlan’ has been received well by all factions of Punjab. This is despite the fact that  the book is critical of the political machinery and various religious institutions of that state. Speaking of the farmers’ protest, Amandeep says that it has brought Haryana and Punjab along with the various ideologies within Punjab. He also went on to explain how the centre cannot arbitrate on a state subject. Amandeep insisted how with his writings he wanted to change the current political narrative that demonizes Punjab.

Nirmala then spoke of how she first came across child labour, sex trafficking in Odisha and rural Jharkhand and how that changed her life for ever. She also spoke of her experience with young women in Ooty and Kolkata who were rescued from sex trade, the developmental work being done by various NGOs in these region and how the individuals she met in these places inspired  her work. According to her no political party stepped into these areas and the plight of the tribal people she worked with had changed her opinion about reservation.

Aruna who had recently read Nirmala’s Taboo said she expected the book to be sombre and bleak given the seriousness of the subject. She was surprised to find it rather whimsical and that it made her smile. Nirmala in response said that the idea of writing fiction is to move away from reality to create the alternate reality. Also in her opinion, these girls and women, despite being survivors exude so much positivity that one can write nothing but a whimsical tale of them. When asked about how some of her characters seemed to have been inspired from the current political landscape, Nirmala said that her writings and creations are reflections of what she sees across the country. So her work is a satire on the political state of the country and not merely on sex trafficking. Nirmala also mentioned that her next  book is also a women-centric subject.Her advice for anyone who aspires to write such sensitive subjects is that they must feel strongly about it to be able to talk about it.