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Friday, December 04, 2020

‘The invisible shield reporters from the West once had is diminishing’

Journalist Declan Walsh on the many Pakistans he saw during his time as a foreign correspondent in the country

Written by Amrita Dutta | Updated: November 3, 2020 12:45:25 pm
Journalist Declan Walsh, pakistan correspondent, sunday eye, eye 2020, indianexpress, Taliban, pakistan through the years,Pen man: Walsh worked as a Pakistan correspondent between 2004 and 2013, when he was summarily booted out of the country for ‘undesirable activities’ (courtesy: Bloomsbury)

To many Indians, Pakistan is a monotone myth: a dreary, too-pious land, hijacked by religious extremism and the military. Declan Walsh’s The Nine Lives of Pakistan (Bloomsbury) tempts us with the unofficial versions — absurd and violent, but never boring. Through nine portraits of battle-hardened politicians, activists, spies and politicians, Walsh sketches a country that struggles with contradictions and mutinies. Walsh served as a Pakistan correspondent for The New York Times for nine years till 2013, till he was summarily booted out of the country for “undesirable activities”. In this interview, the Irish journalist, now NYT bureau chief in Cairo, speaks about writing against the stereotypes of Pakistan, and the increasing difficulty of being a foreign journalist from the West.

Excerpts:

To many Indians, Pakistan is a monotone myth: a dreary, too-pious land, hijacked by religious extremism and the military. Declan Walsh’s The Nine Lives of Pakistan (Bloomsbury) tempts us with the unofficial versions — absurd and violent, but never boring. Through nine portraits of battle-hardened politicians, activists, spies and politicians, Walsh sketches a country that struggles with contradictions and mutinies. Walsh served as a Pakistan correspondent for The New York Times for nine years till 2013, till he was summarily booted out of the country for “undesirable activities”. In this interview, the Irish journalist, now NYT bureau chief in Cairo, speaks about writing against the stereotypes of Pakistan, and the increasing difficulty of being a foreign journalist from the West.

Excerpts:

What did you want to do in this book that your reportage of so many years could not?

Most of the West thinks of Pakistan as alternately threatening, or mystifying or exotic. I wanted to give readers a sense of what Pakistan is like beyond the headlines. The nine years I was in Pakistan (2004-2013) was an explosive period, in which so many signature dramas took place — the fall of Pervez Musharraf, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the rise of the Pakistani Taliban and the assassination of Osama bin Laden. But, as any reporter would know, there is so much that happens off camera. A part of my goal was to give the reader — someone with a passing familiarity with Pakistan but who was still perplexed by its contradictions — a sense of its complexity. I wanted to transmit some of the emotions I felt for it, both the affection and the frustrations, and to try give a sense of what it is to live there.

Did you find many versions of Pakistan?

The partly tells the story of this period through the nine people. It partly uses their experiences to draw out the bigger threads of identity and religion. In a way, the nine people do represent nine Pakistans. One framework I had to understand the apparent contradictions of Pakistan is the distinction between the public and private spheres. For Westerners, a life well-lived is of maximum transparency to the outside world. But in the subcontinent, I would find, say, that my gay friends were out to friends, not to family. Some people my age would not smoke or drink in front of their parents. And I came to the conclusion that in Pakistan, the private and public spheres were separate, and that was a way of reconciling differences about the place.

These are some very dangerous men you write about, but with humour and an eye for the absurd. Did you find them funny?

I did — and honestly, that was what made them so appealing. Pashtun leader Anwar Kamal Khan at the frontier, for instance, was an incredibly loquacious guy, like someone out of a novel. I couldn’t have made him up. The humour was something I wanted to convey about these people, and also about the country. I had problems with how Pakistan was represented in the Western media during this period. In particular, there was a cover of an American newsmagazine that showed an image of a bunch of bearded Pakistani men at a protest –one of them is looking into the camera, and snarling at it. Of course, these people are real. But if that’s the only thing that you see about a country, you get a skewed version. What I loved about the people I met and featured — like Asma Jahangir — was that they were 360-degree people like the rest of us. They had their quirks and weaknesses, and that makes them interesting portraits.

How important is Islam as a glue that keeps Pakistan together?

It’s a very important part of the identity of most Pakistanis, except for the non-Muslims. But that’s separate from Islam having the ability to provide a glue that holds the country together. If you think about it: what is it that Pakistanis have in common? According to the cliche, it is Islam, the army and cricket. Of those three, only cricket is the uncontentious one. The big story when I was there was about the rise of the Pakistani Taliban. But centrifugal forces in the peripheries have been a feature of Pakistan since its birth. When I was there, the Baloch insurgency took off, and it was a real sore point for the military and its perception of itself. And now we have seen the Pashtun movement that has erupted, a regional ethnic movement that has the same grievance as the Baloch, which is to say that the centre has marginalized them. And religion does not bind over this. A Baloch, a Pashtun and a Punjabi might be followers of Islam and pray together at a mosque. But they can have very different politics and very different ideas of what it means to be a Pakistani.

How do ordinary Pakistanis think of the Taliban?

For decades, Pakistanis have been told that Islam and the jihad are supporting ideas and they overlap with Pakistan’s national interest. And, suddenly, to see the jihadis turning against the state, and the state not having any answers to that was very disorienting. It was a cognitive struggle and they would fall into conspiracy theories to explain it. Ordinary Pakistanis had a very ambivalent view on the Taliban, even when things were getting really bad, and that surprised me.

But there was a point after the 2014 attack on the army school in Peshawar that the public was so outraged that the military had no excuse but to go after the Taliban. Clearly, the Taliban insurgency has been beaten back into a marginalized space right now, which is great. But it doesn’t mean that the core problem has gone away, which is the ambivalence of the state towards the use of militancy as a tool of statecraft.

What do you think makes the deep state so powerful in Pakistan?

It’s a whole confluence of things. In the early years, Pakistan’s politics was chaotic, the country was very fragile, and the idea of the country was not fully-formed. To pick up the slack, a strong bureaucracy and a strong military, which were the two inheritances from British colonialism, stepped in. With the overthrow of Sikandar Mirza as the country’s leader in the 1950s, the military established its dominance and hasn’t really let go since. But that’s part of it. There is also Pakistan’s geostrategic importance — Egypt is a bit of the same. You see countries using their geosrategic importance to get leverage with Western powers. Sometimes, it’s like being an oil producer. You can make what looks like free money for a while, but at some point, it starts to create as many problems as it solves. And Pakistan is a prime example of that.

For India, Pakistan has often been held out as a warning, that is almost coming true. Do you think there is a more creative way of looking at our neighbour?

Until relatively recently, Indian democracy was a flawed project but it was able to hold itself up to a Nehruvian ideal, which was the overarching structure of Indian politics. Over the last few years, we have seen the rise of Hindu nationalism as the framework. And it seems that India is no longer able to hold itself out as the exception to Pakistan. And that’s worrisome. The difference between the countries is not that they have extremist fringes or blocs, it is: what is the attitude of the state in regulating that? Pakistan’s problem has always been that the state has been a bad arbiter and poor at protecting the minorities, Ahmadis, sometimes Hindus, Christians, Shias. There is no shortage of minorities in Pakistan who have had a terrible time.

When I was in Pakistan, my progressive friends, who had a very fond view of Jinnah, were quietly dismissive of the two-nation theory — that Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims were separate communities that couldn’t live together. But now, they look across the border, at the way Muslims are being treated in India, and they say maybe he wasn’t so wrong. Maybe, the Muslim League in the 1940s was right to fear majoritarian rule in India after all.

What do you see as a foreign correspondent that insiders don’t?

Sometimes, the red lines are more apparent to the Pakistani media and they embrace the idea of foreign correspondents doing stories on sensitive subjects that they couldn’t cover. For instance, the disappearances in Balochistan were a sensitive issue. But when I did a story on it, they were then licensed to follow it up. Foreign correspondents don’t just explain the country to the outside, they sometimes help the conversation inside too.

What line did you think you had crossed in Pakistan?

As I recount in the book, a former ISI agent met me in Brussels. He didn’t provide me with a hard answer, but a framework to understand that my reportage in Balochistan displeased a lot of people in the security agencies.

In Egypt, too, you barely escaped being arrested, and it was Irish diplomats rather than the US government that bailed you out. Is it getting harder to be a foreign journalist from the West, with the waning of West’s powers, the rise of China and populist leaders?

Totally. Authoritarianism is on the rise generally. The kind of invisible shield that reporters from the West once had is undoubtedly diminishing, because these countries have other options, with China and Russia and so on. Another factor is the internet. Governments are increasingly sensitive to the reporting that we do because more of their people are reading us in a way they didn’t before. And so, they are beginning to treat the foreign press like a troublesome wing of the local press as opposed to earlier, when it was a bauble they needed to show their tolerance to a free press. But now, whatever we write is picked up instantaneously by people inside the country, and so the really authoritarian governments are more sensitive to the kind of writing we do.

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