Aroosa Alam: The good friend

Manraj Grewal Sharma on Aroosa Alam, the Pakistani journalist and advocate of India-Pakistan peace, whose “pure, beautiful friendship” with Amarinder Singh is now at the centre of a public slugfest between the former Punjab CM and his estranged colleagues in the Congress.

Aroosa Alam

It was a photograph of her sitting beside then chief minister Amarinder Singh, at the inauguration of the Jalandhar Press Club in 2005, that introduced Punjab to Aroosa Alam.

The media was fascinated by her “good looks”, and her easy familiarity with Amarinder. Such was the buzz that the state government machinery facilitated a press meeting with Aroosa in Chandigarh where she referred to Amarinder as a “good friend” and dwelt on Indo-Pak relations, which were seeing a renaissance under his watch. Amarinder had visited Pakistan twice during this tenure and invited his counterpart Pervez Ilahi for a Punjab-to-Punjab summit.

That was the beginning. Now, amidst a public slugfest between Amarinder and his estranged colleagues in the Congress, Aroosa, the journalist from Pakistan and Amarinder’s “good friend”, finds herself caught in the crosshairs. But unlike in the past, this time, the glare has been harsh.

Peacenik, social circuit regular

Soon after that Press Club appearance, Aroosa became a fixture in Amarinder’s social life amidst rumours that his wife, Patiala MP Preneet Kaur, had complained to Congress chief Sonia Gandhi about her. When elections came in 2007 and some wondered whether the relationship would hurt Amarinder, a senior Congress leader quipped that on the contrary, it had earned him brownie points in the hinterland, where men saw it as a “royal conquest by the maharaja of Patiala”.

Over the years, both when Amarinder was out of power for a decade and when he returned to power in 2017, Aroosa flew in and out of Punjab. But she was largely left alone, both by the media and politicians — whether it was when she accompanied Amarinder for the launch of his biography (it had a chapter dedicated to her) at a hotel in Chandigarh in February 2017, or when she was given the pride of place among VVIPs during his swearing-in ceremony as chief minister soon afterwards.

Until the latter half of 2020 — when she last left for Pakistan — Congress leaders would make a beeline to pay respects to her at functions, with a senior Amarinder aide even touching her feet.

A friend of Aroosa’s, who didn’t want to be named, recalls how, after dinner meetings at the CM’s residence, ministers and officers would not only walk up to Aroosa to wish her goodnight, but also make it a point to wave goodbye to her pet Shih Tzu.

All this changed last week when Deputy CM Sukhjinder Singh Randhawa said he had ordered a probe into Aroosa’s “ISI links”.

The tide had changed. Now accused of misusing her clout in the Amarinder government for “kickbacks”, the woman who was always seen, though rarely heard, told The Indian Express recently that Congress politicians were “a pack of hyenas” and asked whether authorities who had given her the visa, year after year, were ISI agents too.

It’s a long way from the time Aroosa first met Amarinder during his trip to Islamabad in 2005 — she was then vice-president of the National Press Club and a budding peacenik.

A specialist in military and diplomatic affairs, she had reported two years earlier about a British diplomat’s dalliance with a woman staffer, in Pakistan Observer, leading to his unceremonious exit.

The high point of her journalism career had been a series of 22 investigative reports in The Muslim on Pakistan’s Agosta 90B submarine deals with France that led to the arrest of then Naval chief Mansurul Haq in 1997. Much later, an aide of former French president Nicolas Sarkozy was charged in the case in 2012.

Himself a military historian, Amarinder took great pride in introducing Aroosa as a defence journalist, who had done a course in strategic studies from the National Defence University in Islamabad.

Journalist, ‘Gen Rani’s’ daughter

Aroosa’s brush with military affairs actually began much earlier. Her mother, Akleen Akhtar, was famously called “General Rani” because of her proximity to Pakistani dictator General Yahya Khan. Akleen, the feisty daughter of a landlord in Gujrat (a city in Pakistan’s Punjab), was married off to a police officer twice her age, and bore him six children. The rebellious Akleen is known to have walked out on her husband while on a vacation at Muree, a hill station near Rawalpindi.

An article in the May 2002 issue of Newsline (a monthly English magazine in Pakistan that stopped publication in 2019) referred to Akleen as “easily the most influential figure during Pakistan’s second military regime”, who “with the slightest gesture of her bejewelled hand could guarantee employment, ensure promotions and bring about unwelcome transfers”.

That was the time when Aroosa was also coming of age. Married to Pakistan foreign services officer Ejaz Alam in the early 1970s, she gave birth to her elder son, Fakhr-e-Alam, in January 1976.

By that time, her mother had fallen on hard times. Soon after coming to power, President Z A Bhutto had put Akleen Akhtar under house arrest in 1972. She was released only when General Zia-ul-Haq toppled the Bhutto regime in July 1977.

In an earlier conversation, Aroosa spoke about how she began her journalism career in the mid-1980s, starting with reporting on society, before moving on to cover diplomatic affairs for Pakistan Observer in 1986.

In 1988, she joined The Muslim as a defence reporter, and in 1997, went on to become the paper’s — and the region’s — first woman chief reporter. She rejoined Pakistan Observer in 2000 and, in 2002, began working as foreign correspondent for Japanese agency Kyodo.

By the time Amarinder came visiting in 2005, she had donned the role of a peacenik — she has been president of the South Asia Free Media Association (SAFMA) — and would often speak fondly about her visits to India.

Although it was in his ancestral home in Patiala that Amarinder first officially played host to Aroosa, while in India, she spent most of her time in Chandigarh. It was not uncommon to spot her grocery shopping in the city’s Sector 9 market.

Along the way, she became part of a social set that remembers her as a warm host who loved her garden at Amarinder’s farmhouse in Mohinderbagh, spoke fluent Punjabi, and could even sing. “She was a very nice person, never had any airs about her,” says a woman friend, who didn’t want to be named because of the present controversy. Another remembered her as a fitness buff, who never missed her daily yoga. “She called it the secret of her youthful looks.”

Aroosa also spoke fondly about her two sons, the younger one a barrister at Dhaka and Fakhr-e-Alam, who is now a top TV anchor and producer. Back in Pakistan, she is better known as the mother of Fakhr-e-Alam, who recently did a reality show with the Pakistan army, and is now hosting the ICC T20 World Cup at Ten Sports Pakistan and ASports. An aviator, he has circumnavigated the globe solo.

Harkirat Ahluwalia, a hotelier and family friend of Amarinder, recalls how easily Aroosa struck friendships. “All these politicians who are now casting aspersions at her used to hang on to every word of hers,” he says, adding it’s wrong to call her a gold-digger, for she remained with Amarinder for 10 years even when he was not in power.

While in India, her birthday on May 21 was a gala annual event, often celebrated at Mashobra in Himachal Pradesh with the who’s who of Punjab in attendance.

Though Amarinder’s family is said to have objected to their relationship, he remained adamant about her. Aroosa claimed to this paper earlier that she shared a warm relationship with Amarinder’s family. “Whenever I am in India, I do not just meet him (Captain) but also his family… everyone other than madam maharani sahiba (Preneet Kaur). In the beginning, my friends and I used to stay at Moti Bagh Palace in Patiala and we used to meet maharani sahiba. She was a good host. But later, we did not meet….,” she said.

One of the regulars at Amarinder’s Mohinder Bagh farmhouse says the two were very comfortable with their relationship. “I remember Aroosa telling us how they spend the mornings together. She told us, ‘While Capt saab reads the press clippings, I go through the papers. After that, we go our own ways’.”

In an interview with a Canadian radio channel, Aroosa said what she found most endearing about Amarinder was his “aankh ki sharam (consideration for others)”. Her friendship with Amarinder, she admitted, was a “sensitive matter” and could land her in trouble with fundamentalists back home.

After the recent slugfest in Punjab, the two have been at great pains to clarify the nature of their relationship. In a Facebook post where he posted pictures of Aroosa with various dignitaries, including the late BJP leader Sushma Swaraj, Amarinder wrote, “I am going to be 80 in March and Mrs Alam 69 next year. Narrow-mindedness seems to be the order of the day.”

Aroosa told this paper, “When I met Capt Saab (in 2005), I was 50-plus and he was over 60. So if you call it a love affair and try to give it a romantic angle, it is very wrong…It’s a pure, beautiful friendship.’’

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