Indo-Pak presser from hell
(An informal remembrance of the Indo-Pak foreign ministers’ meeting in Islamabad on July 15)
1. Press conference scheduled for noon is suddenly put off. Oooh. Something big in offing. I’m asked if I would like to ask the sixth and last question of the Q and A. I say aye.
2. Thirty-plus Indian party head to Pakistan Foreign Ministry building in three buses. Presser, we are told, will be 245.
3. Arrive at press room an hour earlier. Bugger. Pakistani scribes already in place. All the chairs are gone. I find an empty seat in the back of the room, behind two lines of TV camera crews.
4. Indian spin doctors tell me I have to sit in front since I’m asking a question. No seat. So I join others sitting on the floor near the podium.
5. Air conditioning struggling. I count about 40 TV cameras. Two people per camera. Plus 150 or so diplomats, print people and lesser beings. 250 people. Islamabad in July. Quite warm.
6. Podium is fronted by a big rectangular wooden thingie with a flower arrangement on top. Looks familiar. I turn to a Western journalist next to me: “Doesn’t this look a coffin?” She looks. “Yes. It does.”
7. Suddenly all the cameramen come to life. Everyone runs to their seats (or part of the floor). False alarm.
8. Minutes pass by. Room getting stuffier. People inside getting stickier. After a few hours past the supposed starting time, everyone is joking. “Having brought peace to India and Pakistan the foreign ministers’ must have moved on to the Israeli-Arab conflict and Taiwan.”
9. About six everyone rushes to their seats again. Ministers have arrived. They go upstairs and continue talking. False alarm.
10. Hear rumours water is being served in a corner. Go there. Urban myth. End up taking a swig from a journalist who has brought a bottle from the hotel.
11. A white-clad waiter with a teapot on tea tray walks into the room. Everyone applauds. Refreshments. Then he walks out. For the negotiators, we are told.
12. Pakistani scribes make up for their boorish government by surrendering their seats to the female Indian journalists who are sitting on the floor. “You are guests,” they explain. Being male I don’t benefit.
13. Young Pakistani next to me gets excited on finding out I share his last name. Tell him it is a less exalted name in Bengal than it is in Punjab. Chaudhuri vs Chaudhury. He works for government radio. He assures me it is purgatory. Lots of political pressure. “I cannot leave. Once you are a government journalist, you are marked for life.”
14. Another rustle at the entrance. It’s been nearly eight hours. No water. Lots of sweat. Good preparatory ground for a commando. “You will be expected to survive in a government building for hours. No water. No food. You will live only on your wits and write only what you catch in the wild. Do you understand, soldier?” The ministers arrive. It’s the real thing.
15. SM Krishna and SM Qureshi make separate statements. Talk about desiring cooperation and good neighbourliness. How they respect each other. How everything is sweetness and light. Clearly didn’t agree on anything whatsoever. Pakistani journalists murmuring how tense and tight-lipped Qureshi is.
16. They can’t possibly allow questions. I am wrong. The first question reflects an eigh hour wait for nothing. “The two of you made us wait for so long and accomplished nothing. Do you have an explanation.” To be said with contempt and rudeness.
17. Krishna and Qureshi waffle through the questions. Qureshi attacks Indian Home Secretary’s interview from the day before, prefaces it with the words, “We both believe…” 250 heads turn to look at Krishna. Horizon gazing. “He didn’t hear the word ‘both’..,” say muttering heads.
18. Qureshi asked about terrorist chief Hafiz Sayeed’s anti-India statements. “You refer to Hafiz Sayeed’s statements. May I draw your attention to the Indian home secretary’s statements on Pakistan…” 250 heads turn to look at Krishna. Horizon gazing. Someone says, “He’s been negotiating for 10 hours. He’s an old man….” But it is clear the two are now playing to their domestic audiences.
19. The pre-arranged six questions are over. Getting up to leave. Running through synonyms to use in the heading. “Deadlock or stalemate?” “Collapse or fiasco?” One Pakistani fellow yells, “Sir, we have waited so long. We should be allowed more questions!” Qureshi suddenly raises his arm. “I agree with my friends in the media. They should ask more questions.”
20. Questions come. But now it’s whoever yells the loudest gets heard. Things were going downhill. Now they go off a cliff. “What are you doing about Indian terrorism in Balochistan?” “What about Indian soldiers using rape as a weapon against Kashmiri women?” And so on. It ends with one long tirade to Krishna about the horribleness of Indian policy in Kashmir. Krishna looks angry. Gives a curt, “That’s your opinion.” 21. 21. Suddenly the conference is over. Journalists run to the door. Indian official team disappears. Qureshi begins spinning immediately. Holds an impromptu press conference on the stairs.