For anyone thinking of peace between India and Pakistan, it seems that the relationship will always remain a puzzle that people can’t easily decipher. “Now you see it, now you don’t” is what describes the relationship. Every time one begins to think that the two countries are turning a corner in altering attitudes, something happens that suggests otherwise. Islamabad’s decision to not extend the visa of two resident Indian journalists one after the other makes one wonder if it is just a simple matter of not extending the visas of two people whose term had come to an end or something bigger, exposing the direction of bilateral relations, or perhaps the power struggle inside the country.
In late April, The Hindu correspondent Anita Joshua was informed that she would not get an extension. She had completed three years in Islamabad. Later in mid-June, the remaining Indian journalist, Press Trust of India’s Rezaul Hasan Laskar was also asked to leave the country by 29 June. The two journalists were in Islamabad as part of a bilateral arrangement made in the 1980s to have about five resident journalists in each other’s countries. The number was reduced in the mid-1990s by Benazir Bhutto’s government to two.
While Pakistan chose to have two people from the public sector organisations in New Delhi, India opted to be represented by the PTI and The Hindu. Despite the fact that life was not made easy by intelligence agencies of either State, the resident journalists added to the flavour of the capital cities and social circles. These were not diplomats yet they experienced both the friendship of the people and the ire of the State. Both these opposing attitudes are understandable in their own way.
Interestingly, the Pakistan government failed to send its two journalists — one from the State’s Associated Press of Pakistan and the other from Radio Pakistan to India — and so the slot remained empty for more than five years. What is even more interesting is that the no one in the State machinery exerted any pressure on their own system to send people to New Delhi but continued to breathe under the pressure of their realisation that the Indian journalists were gathering knowledge about Pakistan without a similar thing happening on the other side. A false perception was spread about one of the journalists being a RAW agent. This could be a reason that more restrictions were placed, such as granting these journalists a single city visa only. However, the process was not interrupted nor was the PTI correspondent asked to leave after the completion of his term.
As part of the restrictions, Joshua was allowed to stay in the country on an almost forever-expired visa. In the three years she was in Islamabad, she was constantly asking for an extension long enough to make her do things more normally like apply for a driver’s licence or travel to India back and forth at her will. But this did not happen and one blamed it on the weakness of the Pakistan People’s Party government vis-à-vis the military establishment.
One thought that all this may change under the newly elected Nawaz Sharif government, which had expressed its desire to improve relations with India. Sceptics would argue against reading too much into the government not extending the visas. For instance, according to renowned journalist Imtiaz Gul, Laskar’s visa was not revoked; it was just not extended despite the fact that he posted judgemental comments on social media about Pakistan’s politics and internal affairs. Notwithstanding the thin line between the public and the private as far as social media is concerned, those statements really did not reflect on how Laskar eventually reported on Pakistan.
Moreover, non-extension is the new style of revoking a visa because a government cannot legally be accused of pushing someone out. Although the journalists from both sides came for three years or a bit more, the length of an individual’s stay is also a matter to be determined by the parent organisation. Reportedly, Laskar had continued to work for almost five years because the PTI could not find a suitable replacement. Therefore, he continued to serve his organisation in Islamabad despite his desire to return to his country due to professional obligations.
Laskar’s return cannot be separated from the issue of not giving a visa to Meena Menon, who has been waiting for ages to get the permission to replace Joshua in Islamabad. Therefore, it is the first time in so many years that there are no resident Pakistani journalists in India and vice versa. Also, it is as if the powerful permanent establishment in Pakistan does not want to have that arrangement or hold the new prime minister back from making any moves.
The journalists affair could be a reflection of the greater uneasiness that has been building within the Army General Headquarters (GHQ) in Rawalpindi regarding New Delhi. Though many would blame the anxiety on the LOC episode in mid-January in which the Indian media got very active in accusing Pakistan without checking the veracity of the facts, it is possible that the anguish might have been caused even earlier due to the army’s disappointment in its counterpart’s reaction to the death of about 129 Pakistani soldiers who were trapped in a massive avalanche in Giyari in April 2012 (in the larger Siachen glacier region).
The GHQ even took The Hindu’s Joshua to Giyari to see the efforts at retrieving the dead bodies mainly because it wanted to soften the reaction in New Delhi on the issue. Army chief Gen Ashfaq Parvez Kayani had hoped that the tragedy might translate into an opportunity for demilitarisation of the glacier, an idea that has come up several times, but never grown into something more serious than a discussion point. This would have been a move to show to his men that peace could be viewed seriously or that with possible demilitarisation, the men need not suffer any more by serving at such unfriendly heights.
The main objection was from the Indian Army, which seems to be in an unrelenting mood as far as military confidence-building measures or threat from Pakistan is concerned. Some may argue that this is possibly a reaction to repeated adventures from the other side like the 1999 Kargil War and the 2008 Mumbai attacks. But it is also a fact that a large organisation as the army would rather expand its presence and interests in this manner rather than evaluating its own problematic intelligence gathering and surveillance capabilities.
It is also a fact that India and Pakistan’s militaries are getting extra cautious and extremely protective of their turf. In Pakistan’s case, this is reflected in the overall policy towards foreign journalists. Rawalpindi would rather have some known Indian faces travel to Pakistan on short and sweet visits without necessarily developing an understanding of the country. Even though confined to a single city visa, the resident Indian journalists managed to develop a sense of Pakistan, which also extended beyond issues of military security.
However, as seasoned journalist Mariana Babar pointed out, this issue is connected with a bigger problem of how foreign journalists are perceived. Allegedly, more and more journalists, including western ones, are being evicted for one reason or the other. While the government may be well within its right to disallow any foreigners on its soil, the move does reflect strengthening of the military establishment in calling the shots on who enters and stays in Pakistan. Possibly in the backdrop of false allegations that former ambassador to the US Hussain Haqqani issued visas to CIA agents, the security establishment has now placed greater restrictions on whom to allow in the country and for how long.
According to Babar, journalists will continue to be treated like this and no other Indian resident correspondent will be issued a visa until Sharif decides to “assert himself in the face of the security establishment”. Sadly, the positive tone with which Sharif started talking about improving bilateral relations seems to be dithering. It’s time he decided if he wants to take the bull by the horn.
Siddiqa is an Islamabad-based columnist and the author of Military Inc