Neeta Sharma

Neeta Sharma wrote a post :

Neeta Sharma


INDO PAK BONHOMIE - A REALITY OR A MYTH?

REPORTER'S DIARY
My second visit to PAKISTAN!

Going to Pakistan again was an exciting assignment but I knew the road would not be easy....anyways I started with positive attitude. I applied for the visa a week in advance only to get it a day before I was slated to leave......that too after lot of  pulls and pushes.....had to ask many to intervene before they finally granted us visa.  

Initially we were not getting tickets....everything was booked our problem compounded ....as there are no direct flights to Islamabad. Either one goes to Karachi or to Lahore....from there one has to take a connecting flight to Islamabad. We got our visas on May 23 rd night  at 7.30 pm.....by then there was only one option left -- Pakistan International Airline (PIA flight) to Lahore which was coming  full.....however we did manage to get seats on it.

Next day three of us - me my cameraperson and colleague from 24x7 reached airport well in advance so that we would have no problems. The flight was scheduled to leave at 5.30 pm ......we checked in.....but an hour later were told flight was little late ....how much ....that no one was willing to share.....we asked PIA staff what about our connecting flight to Islamabad ....they said they will take care of that and we need to worry. Since we had no option we waited waited and waited......finally the flight left IGI at 9.40 pm .....and we reached there around 10.50 pm IST and 10.20 pm Pakistan time.

After reaching Lahore -Iqbal Allama International airport - we hurried to the immigration counter so that we could check out asap .....me and my cameraperson managed to clear our formalities but my colleague was stopped .....it was then we learnt that he had not been exempted from police reporting. He was given a form which meant he had to inform the local police as soon as he arrived in Islamabad. 

We wondered was it a genuine oversight by the Pakistan embassy staff here in New Delhi or a deliberate mistake.

 Anyways we crossed over from international airport to the domestic side .....the policemen scanning our baggage informed us that the connecting flight to Islamabad had already left...initially I did not believe them as I was sure as this could not happen. 
We went to the PIA counter only to find it locked.....waited there for few minutes......made queries about the staff....finally located them.....they told us they could not delay the local flight ...when asked the international one was delayed .....they said it was not in their hands. 

The Indo Pak HS level talks were supposed to begin next morning ie 24 rth May .....we were petrified .....however informed office about the delay...... went back again to the counter to find a way out as all three of us did not have Lahore visa ( both countries give each other city centric visas)....the PIA officials said there was no way out, then one of them suggested we could to Islamabad by road (distance between Lahore and Islamabad can be covered between 3-4 hours).  

But a fellow Indian advised us otherwise as it was late night and not safe....we took his advise decided to halt in Lahore , we were taken to a local hotel by PIA staff. Interestingly as soon as we sat in the car the driver dialled a number and kept in his pocket .......don't knw if it was deliberate or someone was listening to what we were saying in the car.

Next day we got 11 am flight to Islamabad reached there around 12.30 pm ....checked into to the hotel where office had booked room for us.....and ran to hotel Serena hotel where talks were taking place.
By then first round of talks were over. India had drilled in their point of view ......take action against Hafiz Saeed and punish perpetrators of 26/11. Besides these other issues like - infiltration, unprovoked firing across borders...crossed border terrorism etc were also raised.
From other side they raised Samjhuta and Baluchistan.

We were given the impression that next day much touted liberal visa policy between India and Pakistan was also going to be signed.  It meant a new bonhomie between two countries. Both the secretaries came out and announced the same.

So did the trust deficit between two countries finally had decreased?

I went to the streets to find out....spoke to lot of traders.....students .......women etc.....all had same opinion that there was no difference between Indians and Pakistanis and new visa policy would benefit  both countries.  Some told me they wanted to come to Delhi to see Red Fort some said they loved Indian music.......Kajol was their favourite......all was well till the time one did not broach up the contentious issues.....26/11 or Hafiz Saeed. 
It was then one realised u were speaking to a different person.
None of them agreed with me that Hafiz Saeed was involved in 26/11. 

PAKISTAN U TURN ON VISA POLICY

All was well - well on the surface atleast. Next day the delegation called upon their Interior Minister Rahman Malik......we waited outside his office with a hope that now the visa policy would be announced.....but when Mr Malik came out he said that both countries still have to wait. 

Indian side told us that they were ready with the visa policy. But Pakistan refused to sign it. 
During his press inter reaction Mr Malik said that the decision to sign such a policy should be taken politically.....and it would have been better if Indian Home Minister had come along to sign the new policy.

Seems Mr Malik was miffed with our home minister who had snubbed him. Mr Malik had extended an invite to Indian Home Minister when he visited India with President Zardari also had written him a letter........but Chidambaram did not acknowledged it. Cos he (Chidambaram) is of the view that till the time Pakistan is not ready to tackle cross border terrorism or address the issues which he had raised during his 2010 visit.....there could be no movement forward. (No wonder Pakistan media calls our home minister an hawk.)
So in retaliation Mr Malik also decided to put a hold on the visa policy. Though he again extended his invitation to Chidambaram  asked him to visit Pakistan.

Things immediately changed after that.....the constant tension between two countries was on the faces  of who so ever was part of the delegation.

OUR OWN EXPERIENCE ON HOW THINGS CHANGED BETWEEN TWO COUNTRIES

As soon as we landed to Islamabad we told problem of my colleague to Indian officials ....they insisted it would be dealt with....they spoke to the interior ministry's officials also....they also said it would be taken care of ......we relaxed our guards. The next day after meeting Rahman Malik the delegation left for Burbhan a small hill station near Islamabad ......we broached the subject with one of the aides of the minister only to be told that they can't help us. 

Reason when Pakistani journalists visit our country our police also does the same with them. That time none of our officials help them. India also denied visas to seven journalists who wanted to travel with their judicial commission who visited India recently.

Point was taken that now we had to rush to the police station to sot out the matter ASAP. Good sense prevailed and my colleague took a local chap with him who not only resolved the matter but also signed a bond that he knew him.


INDIA INDEED DID DO HARD TALKING WITH PAKISTAN! 


The heroes of the visit were Indian Home Secretary RK Singh and Director Intelligence Bureau N Sandhu.....both were loaded with facts and did not give Pakistan a chance to counter them....even Pakistan secretary interior Khwaja Siddique Akbar acknowledged that .....in his own words ......"hum ek kehten hain woh teen sunate hain " (if we tell them one instance they tell us three).


One of the Pakistan media guys asked Indian home secretary RK Singh that India  says that they 
had enough evidence against Hafiz but America said that who so ever gives evidence against Hafiz would be given 10 million dollars so if  India  has evidence why does it not give to America.......our Home Secretary  countered that he does not know about America but India has evidence and they have given new dossier to Pakistan about it. Mr Singh also wittingly said if Pakistan handed over Hafiz to India.....we would pay same amount tot them.
The headline there in all channels soon said --- " ab saudebazzi  par utar aaya  hai Hindustan" (India now willing to pay for Hafiz Saeed)

PAKISTAN POINT OF VIEW! 
I spoke to many experts - army and security officials - there in Islamabad some on camera and some off camera said that Pakistan leadership was at fault and because of their faulty decisions country was in such a bad shape. They also said immediate rethink of policies was needed. 
But as far as India was concerned the view prevalent was that India  was deliberately trying to make Pakistan depend upon it - be it water, oil or gas.
Another grouse they had was that why no Indian leader wanted to visit Pakistan.
 
ISLAMABAD AS A CITY

I loved everything about it....wide roads....the best part traffic discipline there.....how everyone followed it there.....unlike India. Despite so many security restrictions everyone was cordial.....here in India the minute security officials ask us ......to undergo security checks we frown at them and start complaining.  
Not even once I felt unsafe moving around......I was out on the streets of Islamabad even at 10 pm in the night. The only regret I have is this time I did not get any time to shop :( 

PIA experience 

Pakistanis call their national carrier (Please inform Allah)  .......cos u never know when it will fly or will it land or not.  My experience was no different.... while coming back also our flight was cancelled as it got delayed in Muscat.
But in next 15 minutes I changed my opinion and the reason was .....the employees of PIA. 
They again convinced me ....Pakistanis are indeed warm and large hearted people. 
I went to make queries about our cancelled flight....there I was informed that PIA  could book us (now 4 of us - another colleague from another channel was on same flight )  at 2 pm flight to Lahore.  But as our connecting flight from Lahore to Delhi was at 2.30 pm ......we could not have made it......the in charge there told me the best next alternative was that they could book us a flight for May 28th ....we could not take that as that meant we had to spend 2 more days in Islamabad  and also my colleague had to get clearance from police again.

 So all four of us decided to take total refund and decided to travel by road by Wagah. The local taxi wallahs asked us an exorbitant amount which was three times more .....one of officers at PIA sensed our problem not only he arranged a car for us but also asked the owner to give us their best driver who would take us to Wagah in next three hours.........we thanked him ( I think no one in Air  India  would go out of their way to help a Pakistani).


OUR ADVENTUROUS  ROAD TRIP!!

Hurriedly we four jurnos started our journey back......the driver drove at 120 km per hour...as we had to reach Wagah by 4 pm cos  we were informed after that both sides close their gates. My friends call me a wreckless driver so I was made to sit in infront to navigate the way. If I thought travelling by PIA was nerve wrecking then after a three and half hour journey in the car I changed my opinion. 

Thrice I thought we would knock off someone.....we were 15 minutes late when we reached Pakistan immigration counter in Wagah ...we were informed that everyone had left.....but as journalists we are trained to be persistent we kept asking who was incharge of the immigration counter .....we were finally  traced him. Without listening to out side of story he said we were almost an hour late and there was no way we could cross over now (only diplomats with red passport can cross over 24 hours). 

We pleaded with him....it did not help....our phones also had no network ...we asked one of the officials if we can use their land line somehow he conceded ...we contacted the Indian embassy officials .....they gave us a number of an official in interior ministry....we pleaded our case with him......made him speak to immigration officer.....who first did not relent and then posed a new problem that the Pakistan rangers would not listen to him ...and a message needs to be passed on to their Major.


One of the kindhearted man there told us to go and  request their commander .....I went looking for him by that time the parade was about to start .....everyone was busy in that.....somehow I managed to trace him and told him our problem......magically he said ask immigration guy come with us and he would allow.......in between I also informed BSF headquarters to let some across let us in.

I again went to locate the immigration guy by that time our embassy guys had spoken to their higher ups and this time he was a little courteous......checked our passports and handed us to the Pakistan rangers.......

The rangers took our passport.....the tension  was palpable as the gates were about to open and that meant that the parade was to start and after the parade the gates are closed. For us it meant we would not be able to cross over.

One of them took us to the gate and said that there is  no on other side ie Indian side.......thru the gates somehow I located officer in command there.....waved at him.....he started walking towards me .....through the gates he loudly said Ms Neeta ....I smilingly said yes.

The rangers asked me to move back .....the gates were thrown open .....both sides did some formalities.....our 4 passports were handed over to Indian side and finally we crossed over to our territory around 5.35 pm. While I was walking I knew this moment I would never forget....it was historic.....crossing over when the crowds were cheering all around you ....suddenly I felt that I was taking a victory lap. Never before that moment I had realised importance of being on my own soil.


The BSF took us to our immigration counter.......but if I thought my problems had ended when I crossed over to India I was wrong.....as now Indian immigration officers started posing questions 
.....you went by air....I said yes.....then you can't enter by foot they said .....I told them my visa permitted me to enter by foot. 

He asked me for the slip......but  I had handed it over to Pakistani immigration officer and he had not given it back to me....he said this can't be done.....for a minute I thought I would again be sent back....it's only when I threw some names and told him that he agreed to let me finally through. All of us were made to fill forms and then our passports were handed to us.

 We were racing against time as had to catch flight from Amritsar to Delhi. While on way to the airport I realised no matter what may change between two countries a shadow of suspicion will always remain. The other thing I realised was how difficult it would be for a common man from either side to go across border.....liberal visa policy or no policy.....the attitude of our police forces would never change....


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