Controlling travel under a dictatorship

Published: March 18, 2017
SHARES
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I have never had any joy dealing with senior government functionaries, particularly when they sit in the ministry of information. During the reign of Ayub Khan the ministry was headed by Altaf Gohar, a highly competent administrator who was ghostwriting Friends not Masters for the generalissimo which focused on relations between the United States and Pakistan. The task of dealing with the press was therefore allocated to a joint secretary, one of whose tasks was issuing NOCs to journalists for travelling abroad. Most requests were turned down unless the applicant had what is so charmingly referred to in the local lingo as a jack.

It so happened that the British Council had invited my wife and I to spend a fortnight touring England. I called the personal assistant to the joint secretary for an appointment and was told to make myself available the next morning at nine. I caught the night flight and presented myself at the office of the assistant and handed over my visiting card and letter. After waiting for a few hours I discovered the joint secretary had left the office without returning my invitation. After a month the British Council newsletter devoted two pages to the visit of the joint secretary and his wife in Yorkshire. Nevertheless, another invitation arrived soon after and we got to see London and Edinburgh and received a lot of photographs describing the visit.

That was when a friend of mine compiled a manual on the number of ploys the obstinate autocrats employed when they were engaged in the task of fobbing off all kinds of requests from members of the fourth estate. The ones most used were going out to tea without coming back from lunch, filling up the day with meetings, absenting themselves because a cricket match was on. One who has waded deep in the communal troughs of the bureaucracy knows that the inaccessibility of the concerned executive is in direct ratio to his position and importance in the government.

Ever since I can remember the ministry has been a pain in the butt. On one occasion I received a circular which stated that a judge wanted to meet all newspaper columnists. The time and place of the meeting was also mentioned. When I turned up at the appointed time and place I was informed the meeting had been cancelled. That evening, 10 columnists met at the Press Club and passed a resolution against the ministry for being so slipshod.

Many of the journalists who had applied for an NOC had genuine reasons for doing so — a sick parent, a close relative’s wedding, an invitation from a foreign newspaper. During the days of the Soviet Union I once received an invitation from a Russian news agency to spend a week during which time I could visit any town I pleased. I chose Odessa. Of course there would be a party member accompanying me wherever I went. Unfortunately I had to turn down the invitation due to family pressure. ‘You might be sent to Siberia,’ said a relative. ‘They might turn you into a Bolshie,’ said another. This came from the male camp. Then came the contribution from the female camp. ‘You might meet a beautiful girl in Moscow and God knows what might happen.’ A friend in Naval Intelligence had the last word. ‘If you go to Russia you will always be watched when you came back. So, pray you receive an invitation from the Government of Japan.’

Published in The Express Tribune, March 19th, 2017.

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Reader Comments (1)

  • Parvez
    Mar 21, 2017 - 2:36PM

    By missing out on Odessa….you missed seeing the Odessa Opera House.Recommend

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