The rare Indian foreign correspondent’s view of Pakistan
"There was always intrigue on what lies on the other side, more cultural similarities than differences, rivals on the field but camaraderie off the field, the same language & love for art & a country with a billion people," the Pakistani sports presenter Zainab Abbas posted on X (formerly Twitter) in early October as she headed to India to cover the 2023 Men's Cricket World Cup. Abbas, a member of the broadcast team of the International Cricket Council (ICC), added that she was humbled to have the opportunity – a great rarity for any Pakistani national, and even more so for Pakistani mediapersons, who face notorious difficulties in getting visas to India even at the best of times. She gushed, "a journey away from home of 6 weeks starts now."
Within days, and facing a barrage of online abuse, Abbas hurriedly left India for what she described as "personal reasons". A lawyer in Delhi had filed a police complaint against her, flagging old Twitter posts that allegedly denigrated Hindus and voiced support for Kashmiri self-determination. In an online apology, Abbas wrote that she understood and regretted the hurt caused by the posts, and that they "do not represent my values or who I am as a person today." She added, "I have always felt extremely fortunate and grateful for the opportunities to travel and present the sport I love – this one would have been extra special."
In mid October, with the World Cup already underway, the Pakistan Cricket Board (PCB) lodged a formal protest with the ICC over delays in processing visas to India for Pakistani journalists keen to travel across the border to cover the tournament. It was only after this that the visa process for them seemed to move ahead, with the PCB chairman reporting that "our journalists have been asked to submit their passports."
These incidents underlined just how high the hurdles are for mediapersons hoping to get a first-hand glance across the India-Pakistan border, even with the impetus of a major international sports tournament. In this case it was Pakistani journalists and broadcasters on the receiving end, but the same difficulties apply to their Indian counterparts wanting to travel to Pakistan. In both countries, governments do not hesitate to use journalists as pawns in their attempts to spite one another, and xenophobes see them as easy targets. This makes it very rare to see ground reporting from the "other side" by journalists from either country, and even rarer to find considered accounts of living and working across the border from Indian or Pakistani journalists.
The veteran Indian journalist Kesava Menon's Never Tell Them We Are the Same People: Notes on Pakistan, a memoir of his time as The Hindu's Pakistan correspondent from July 1990 to October 1993, is just that rare thing. Published earlier this year, the book comes three decades after the period it describes, but Kesava maintains that, given the emotional intensity of his experiences, the passage of time has helped him produce a more balanced account. Kesava is remarkably honest: he makes no attempt to hide the anger he carried within himself when he was asked to go to the Islamic Republic of Pakistan. Before this, he had been "covering the second phase of the Khalistan insurrection for about five years and the Kashmiri militancy since its outbreak in April 1989." Pakistan was widely thought to be stoking both phenomena, and Kesava writes that he held it responsible for engineering "carnage" in India. He acknowledges that he had preconceived notions about Pakistan by virtue of being an Indian, yet as a journalist he also had to examine his conditioning while being cautious to not "become overly sympathetic to a nasty neighbour."
From this point of view, Kesava writes about Sindhi wrestlers, Punjabi bureaucrats, Malayalis running cigarette shops, bootleggers, politicians, Gandhara art, caste consciousness, teledramas in which Hindus and Sikhs are shown plotting against innocent Muslims, and much else. Though he was based in Islamabad, he had opportunities to travel to Rawalpindi, Taxila, Lahore, Karachi, Thatta, Mohenjodaro and Swat. On occasion, an official from Pakistan's Press Information Department would call up to chat and "then deliver his punchline, which was something more than a message yet far from amounting to a threat," suggesting that Kesava soften his reporting. Certain areas remained completely out of bounds because of his nationality: notably Balochistan, home to a long-running separatist movement, and Gilgit-Baltistan, administered by Pakistan but also claimed by India. Still, he got to see more of Pakistan than almost any Indian journalist could dream of then or now, with a level of access that seems unimaginable today.
Kesava had the chance to meet Hamid Gul, a former three-star general of the Pakistan Army who headed Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) – Pakistan's main intelligence agency, much loathed in India for its suspected ties to numerous Islamist militant groups and meddling in regional affairs. Kesava initially saw Gul as a "propagator of the jihadi ideology that ISI and a good chunk of the regular office cadre had apparently internalized," but was taken aback by the man he encountered. "My first surprise was to discover that the spymaster with an ogre's reputation was actually about the same size as me," he writes. "The second was that he was soft not only in speech but, from what I could make out, in physique as well." In their first interaction, "With one of my hands gripped in one of his and the other arm draped on my shoulder," Gul asked Kesava "whether it would not be wonderful if India and Pakistan could resolve the Kashmir issue and get along like the friends they were meant to be." Kesava took this to be in earnest, and was left stumped.
Still, and even with his claim that time has mellowed his view, Kesava has his weak spots. He writes that commentaries in the English-language media in Pakistan recognise "India's economic take-off, its enhanced global standing and the results of 75 years of development effort," but he seems upset "that there is as yet no readiness to forego hostility let alone bury the grievances feeding into it." He does not ask himself whether there is such readiness on the Indian side either. It appears he has a bias and is looking for confirmation. This becomes even more pronounced when he writes, "As I do not read Urdu, I do not even want to venture into what that customarily intemperate media is spouting these days." Depicting Pakistan's Urdu-language publications in a negative light without even reading them smacks of entitlement and prejudice.
"Since the policy that the Islamic Republic has pursued in respect of India has been essentially the same throughout," Kesava writes, "there does seem to be reason to presume that it has been consistently endorsed by the people." This is an oversimplification and seems unbecoming of a journalist of Kesava's experience. More egregious, though, is how Kesava conflates state and society in Pakistan. This conflation is at odds with the multiplicity of Pakistani opinions that Kesava himself presents elsewhere in the book – for instance, in his perplexing encounter with Gul – and with the ample evidence of how Pakistanis often disagree with the powers that rule over them.
To his credit, Kesava does not present himself as someone who will change the world with his journalism. Opinionated yet pragmatic and open to change, he comes across as neither a die-hard optimist nor a committed cynic, but rather as someone willing to see complex things in complex ways, even with his biases. Indian views of Pakistan cluster around two extremes informed more by ideology than actual information: on one side is an outright rejection of reconciliation and peace, rooted in nationalist and communal antagonism; on the other a liberal piety that insists there are deep wells of shared feeling and goodwill. Reality, like Never Tell Them We Are the Same People, paints a more convoluted picture. It is not that there is no hope for peace, but also not that unity and understanding can be assumed as the default outcomes between India and Pakistan, stymied only by cynical political actors. To see the messy truth of where things actually stand between the two countries, Indians, as well as Pakistanis, need more of what Kesava had: the chance to get to know the people on the other side.
Rare as it is, Never Tell Them We Are the Same People is not the only memoir on Pakistan by an Indian journalist. Meena Menon's Reporting Pakistan, published in 2017, recounts her stint as The Hindu's Pakistan correspondent between August 2013 and May 2014. Meena was not permitted to travel as widely as Kesava – her visa required her to be based in Islamabad throughout her stay. If she wanted to interview people from outside the capital city, she had to be content with phone calls or set up appointments whenever they visited. Though full of story ideas as an Indian given a golden chance to report from Pakistan, Meena had to temper her enthusiasm because of the restrictions imposed.
She notes that an American correspondent who arrived in Islamabad at the same time as she did was disappointed about getting a three-city visa. "I was astounded – here I was stuck in one city and she was complaining about three whole cities," Meena writes. The gulf in privilege only grew from there. "She later told me that her visa had been extended to the entire country except for some restricted areas." Meena wanted to visit the village of Gah, the birthplace of Manmohan Singh, who was then the Indian prime minister, but her application for permission came to nothing. She also applied to visit the ancient city of Taxila, known for its Buddhist heritage, but was stonewalled because there is an ordnance depot nearby.
Meena points out one big similarity between India and Pakistan: a senseless obsession with bureaucracy and red tape. "Both countries revelled in babudom and paperwork," she writes. "Among the many commonalities was the need to fill forms and everything about them had to be official, including seals. And the seals had to be round. I was perplexed when the telephone company and others asked for my organization's seal to be stamped on each letter or application. I had to ask for bunches of letterheads from my head office in Chennai, which obliged, but I hadn't thought of bringing a seal. Finally I had to get one made with my office address and name on it, and I stamped away to glory on every letter or application I made."
Meena had the unfortunate experience of being expelled from Pakistan at short notice. This followed her interview with Mama Qadeer, the founder of Voice for Baloch Missing Persons, conducted when Qadeer led a 3300-kilometre march from Quetta to Islamabad to demand justice for more than 19,000 persons who had gone missing in Balochistan as the Pakistani state tried to beat down the separatist movement. The story was flagged as detrimental to Pakistan's national interests because Qadeer spoke openly about the possibility of a referendum for an independent Balochistan.
Much before she was asked to leave Pakistan, Meena was harassed in other ways. Banks refused to let her open an account. The Pakistani state had people tailing her not only when she was meeting people for work but also when she was out for treks or parties. These men did not hesitate to walk into the homes of people she was visiting to ask questions. This seems to have caused much annoyance. "I sometimes wished their intelligence could be put to better use," Meena writes, "for instance, stopping young men blowing themselves up in public places or preventing them from wrecking churches, courts and marketplaces." Her colleagues from The Hindu who had worked as foreign correspondents in Pakistan before her – Anita Joshua and Nirupama Subramanian – gave Meena useful tips, but one can perhaps never be fully prepared to deal with the emotions that surface in high-pressure situations.
Meena was advised by a senior Pakistani official to limit her reporting to more palatable stories on arts and culture instead of writing on atrocities against minorities and other vexing issues for the Pakistani state, like Mama Qadeer's long march. She writes about "the paranoia that Indians, especially women, are RAW agents sent to entice Pakistani men" – something she finds "laughable". The sexism is appalling: rather than being respected as a professional, she was being put in her place not only as an Indian but also as a woman.
After her unceremonious exit from Pakistan, Meena faced more frustration back in India. In May 2013, a few months before she arrived in Islamabad, the New York Times correspondent Declan Walsh had been expelled from Pakistan. Afterwards, Meena writes, "the New York Times had kept up pressure to reinstate him, and even after the house of its correspondent was searched in Islamabad in 2016, they had protested." The Hindu, by contrast, "was more worried about sending another person, and later after I returned, the then editor, Malini Parthasarathy, didn't allow me to write about a blasphemy issue I had tracked, saying that it was articles like this that had got me out of there." Meena muses, "I realized for the first time that I had wasted time trying to file different stories; maybe if I had stuck to press releases, life would have been smoother."
Both Reporting Pakistan and Never Tell Them We Are the Same People show how stressful it is to operate as a journalist under constant surveillance. Kesava, like Meena, writes about having been under constant watch. Despite the obstacles they faced, both Kesava and Meena seem to have survived because of their sense of humour, their creative approach towards challenges, and help from friends they made in Pakistan. They acknowledge gestures of kindness that took them by surprise and warmed their hearts.
At the same time, they clarify that they are not peaceniks. Kesava scoffs at Indians who visit Pakistan on week-long or fortnight-long visas and declare that "the liberalism they encountered was irrefutable proof that their hosts were ready to forget all differences." He calls them "parachutists", used pejoratively to indicate that they are out of touch with ground realities. Meena writes, "The danger of harping on similarities is that often one ends up in a nostalgic rut." For her, covering Pakistan is neither about "doing stories only on peace moves" nor about "trashing the country." She asks, in all sincerity, "Is it possible to criticize Pakistan without it being misunderstood as an anti-Pakistan tirade or a Research and Analysis Wing (RAW) operation?"
She points out that until the early 1990s, five Indian media organisations – The Hindu, the Times of India, Hindustan Times, All India Radio and the Press Trust of India (PTI) – had foreign correspondents in Pakistan. After this list was trimmed, only The Hindu and PTI were allowed this distinction. When Meena was expelled from Pakistan, so was another Indian journalist, Snehesh Alex Philip, working for PTI.
Sameer Arshad Khatlani's 2020 book The Other Side of the Divide: A Journey into the Heart of Pakistan is another account of an Indian journalist's time across the border. This one is based on recollections from just a week in Lahore, padded out with research on various aspects of Pakistani history and popular culture. Khatlani got his brief chance to see Pakistan when he was sent by the Times of India to cover the World Punjabi Conference in 2013, and he chose to make the most of this rare opportunity.
Khatlani is a Muslim and also a Kashmiri, and this identity informs his vantage point. "Kashmiris have been the proverbial grass that has suffered in the elephants' (India–Pakistan) fight," he remarks. "Any improvement in their ties has a direct bearing on Kashmir." He appears deeply invested in busting stereotypes that depict Pakistan as "a paranoid, insecure, humourless and dangerous place" (here Khatlani deliberately echoes a notorious depiction of Pakistan by the British journalist Christopher Hitchens) and in presenting the gentler face of the country. Towards this end, he writes about poets, musicians, artists and human rights activists, and recounts visits to bookshops, Sufi shrines, gurudwaras, restaurants and museums. He also shares anecdotes about Pakistanis who have stood up against oppression and spoken truth to power.
The book is more feel-good than Reporting Pakistan and Never Tell Them We Are the Same People, and also more of a travelogue, taking readers to spots more likely to be on a tourist itinerary. Khatlani writes about meeting friends of friends, and reunions with Pakistanis that he had met on their visits to India. He does detail one unsettling incident: he attended an event at a bookstore in Lahore's cantonment area, where he realised he was not supposed to be as Indians are barred from visiting military areas in Pakistan – just as Pakistanis are barred from military areas in India. He managed to pass unnoticed when the police turned up to check identity cards, but his violation of strict visa rules weighed heavily on his mind, and afterwards he kept checking anxiously to see if he was being followed.
Khatlani seems convinced that journalists must play a role in brokering peace, and his prior experience with Aman Ki Asha, a cross-border peace initiative led by the Times of India and the Jang Media Group in Pakistan, shapes his worldview. His commitment to "humanizing" Pakistan stems from a sincere wish for peace in Southasia, and this is admirable even if some might think of it as naïve.
Khatlani's effort to change perceptions about Pakistan is directed not only towards Indian Hindus, a default target for any endeavour of this kind, but also fellow Indian Muslims like his in-laws, who were averse to the idea of him visiting Pakistan. Starting from the separation of India and Pakistan along religious lines at the time of their independence, many Muslims who chose to remain in India had their loyalty to the country questioned. Many of them grew to despise Mohammad Ali Jinnah, the architect of a separate Pakistan, as Partition rendered them "vulnerable to reprisals for real and imagined crimes even of medieval empire builders who happened to be Muslims."
Kesava points out an interesting distinction in perceptions of Pakistan among Hindus in North and South India. He writes, "As everyone knows, those of us who live south of the Satpuras did not suffer the massacres of the founding year" – that is, during Partition. "A desire to avenge co-religionists is not absent among South Indians but it was very uncommon during my formative years." In his very devout Hindu family, he did not "remember ever hearing any relatives or associates talking let alone raving about the Muslim marauders of Partition times. As far as the generation preceding mine was concerned, North Indian Hindus were an unfamiliar species, so where would Pathans or Punjabi Mussalmans figure in?"
Because of his identity, Khatlani seems to have a lot more at stake in writing on Pakistan than Kesava and Meena. But his limited experience in Pakistan, an inescapable consequence of the limited time he was allowed there, makes him miss many of the nuances the other writers came to see. Khatlani seems to take things and people at face value, without questioning them much. The journey he takes readers on is more descriptive than analytical in nature. Meena and Kesava, by contrast, came face to face with unsavoury aspects of Pakistan's reality as well. They were aware that any privilege or friendly treatment they enjoyed was not going to last forever, that any change in the two countries' relations could change how they were treated, and that even knowing the most influential people in Pakistan might not save them from being sent home. And both writers admit that Pakistani correspondents in India have also had to live with similar anxieties.
What makes Meena's book even more valuable is that, unlike Kesava and Khatlani, she does not make any grand claims or generalisations about Pakistan. She does not present herself as an expert because she knows fully well that "it is often opinion and not facts that dominate our relations." The self-awareness and humility are impressive, and one wonders if this has to do at least to some extent with her gender. Crucially, Meena and Khatlani also make the distinction between the Pakistani state and ordinary citizens of Pakistan that Kesava does not always do.
There could be an additional factor to this too. Before her time as a correspondent in Pakistan, she had already made a short visit to the country, not unlike Khatlani's. She had travelled as part of an exchange programme between the Mumbai Press Club and the Karachi Press Club, with delegations of journalists visiting each other's countries. Her longer second stay, it seems, gave her a chance to re-examine first impressions, and to good effect.
Even rarer than the Indian correspondent's account of Pakistan, it seems, is the Pakistani correspondent's view of India. My attempts to find a book in English from the Pakistani perspective yielded nothing. Still, some Pakistani journalists have been allowed a look at the other side, and not just on short trips to cover sports or diplomatic events. Saim Saeed interned at Tehelka magazine in Delhi for three months early in his career – an arrangement almost unheard of for a Pakistani journalist, or for Indian journalists hoping for similar experience in Pakistan. Saeed also studied at an international school in India for two years – again, a very rare opportunity. He reflected briefly on his time in school in a piece he wrote in 2014 for Friendships Across Borders: Aao Dosti Karein, an India–Pakistan peace initiative that I later ran.
"As a Pakistani, it's easy to act friendly towards Indians," Saeed writes. "You bring up familiar cultural tropes – cricket, Bollywood – have a couple of rounds of expletives directed towards the British, and talk about how great aloo parathas are, and for the most part, you're set." But it's "a more awkward discussion to have when there are real disagreements about Kashmir, partition, '65, '71, or even 26/11. People allude to the post-partition stories – the 'my old street in Lahore/Delhi', the neighbours – but few wish to recall their grandparents' role, either as victims or perpetrators in the violence of 1947." Yet those are the necessary conversations, Saeed insists. "We can talk about peace, and play down our differences as much as possible, but ultimately it comes down to whether we have the trust, the sincerity and the conviction to talk about the things that pit us on either side of a still disputed, now-nuclear fence."
Saeed found a person to have these conversations with at his school, someone who became a close friend. He writes that this felt transgressive, but the transgression wasn't in the fact of a friendship straddling the India–Pakistan border. Rather, it was in crossing "the lines we were too afraid to cross on our own. To admit to ourselves that neither of us cared very much for Kashmir, that neither of us were particularly religious, 'patriotic' in the hyper-nationalist sense, or good at cricket. That we ceased to be what we were supposed to be, was the transgression and the salvation."
There's clearly a book waiting to be written here, and one that people on both sides of the border would be blessed to read.
Editor's note: This piece has been amended to emphasise that Sameer Arshad Khatlani deliberately echoes Christopher Hitchens when describing stereotypes of Pakistan as "a paranoid, insecure, humourless and dangerous place".