Saturday afternoons in Islamabad are clinically boring. The industrial/agricultural elite of Parliament has packed off for the weekend and anybody who wears stars is off golfing or playing polo. As even the Twitter feed is slow, the news day is thus a stretch. Meanwhile, news TV viewing, even the rerun of one’s own show, is a painful but relevant exercise, especially when it is compounded by threats that promise beheading, bestiality, torture and other such comforts of wrath.
According to the records, I got the first call at 1312 hours on Saturday, a few minutes into the repeat broadcast of my new show. It needs to be stated for the record that the show was a passionate debate between that old warhorse, Lt. Gen. Hameed Gul, and myself. Though ‘Saddam Gul’, as Robert Oakley once called him, and I have faced off several times on television, this encounter was less about him and more about his new gig with the good folks of the Difa-e-Pakistan Council.
I started off fairly quickly, teasing Gul why he and his DPC buddies were so angry all the time. Gul just laughed it off. Then we got cracking about the DPC’s ‘pressure group’ tactics, and how they had nothing constructive to contribute to the critical governance issues the country is being held hostage by. Still, that toughened spy chief brushed it aside. Then came the issue of the ‘outlaw groups’, and how the Malik Ishaqs and the Hafiz Saeeds of the world are displayed and paraded around at the DPC’s rallies, and how such displays cause jitters everywhere, and how those jitters end up giving this poor, broken country a bad name.
For the first time in the interview, around 10 minutes in, Gul struggled, outright rejecting the claim that Malik Ishaq was at the Multan rally. As we tend to do in our show, evidence was promptly presented. A screen shot of The Express Tribune, with Ishaq in living colour at the Multan stage, was displayed on our monitor, and Gul struggled some more. Doing what he does best, Gul upped the ante, claiming that the Tribune’s pics were doctored. I challenged him, defending the Tribune’s reporting standards. He counter-challenged, and said it was not the paper, rather the reporter who was lying. I rebutted, and hence we moved on. Around this part of the show’s broadcast, the call came.
He didn’t say hello. He knew my name and my address. He kept it short, and told me exactly what he would do to my body parts when he was done detaching them. He then hung up. That was caller one.
But that was just the bad cop routine. The good cops, several of them, came knocking with a flurry of text messages. One of them started off by asking why I was siding with India. My reply was that I was not siding with any collective, and in fact had brought up the disturbing statistic of India’s arms expenditures with Gul, asking the former ISI chief what he and the DPC were doing besides screaming murder about matching the $100 billion dollars that the Indians plan on weapons procurement spending over the next decade. He pinged back after a few minutes, concentrating his grammar on the imaginings between my mother and some animals. The other good cops started in similar vein, one of them asking me whether I had learnt my English in America. Seeing where this could lead to, I didn’t respond. That action further lit up my afternoon, as references to pre-Islamic debauchery, disasters and disease continued to flash on my phone. No names were offered, but when my address and location was confirmed, again and again, I pressed the panic button.
The cavalry that came to help was the Aaj TV administration as well as contacts in Pakistan’s premier intelligence agencies. Within an hour, we had located the origin of the calls: All of them were from Lahore. And yes, we even had the addresses down. By now, panic had given way to anger. Evidently, this was a planned and coordinated assault, ranging between Badian, Rajababad and Model Town.
I reached out to Gen Gul, and after several hours, he finally reverted, admitting that he too had heard from “some people” who were “angry” at him about granting me this interview. He said all was well between us, and that he was sorry about what had happened. He said he didn’t know who was threatening me, but nor could he help call them off.
Meanwhile, contacts in the intelligence community had another explanation: they said that people belonging to “such organizations” are “excessively emotional”, and that the real operators “never warn” before they strike. Still, the fact that my address and numbers were so quickly available to my would-be executioners wasn’t taken as a “credible threat”. You’re a famous man, I was told. Everybody knows your information. Don’t worry. All will be well.
And that’s when it all made sense. Pakistan is Chaos Country. Nobody is in charge any more. In the battles for our soul – for freedom, for journalism, for jihad, for governance and law – all the combatants are right, and everybody else wrong. The intel officials and my television bosses thought it would be better to know more and do less, for giving the relevant groups’ actions public coverage would only serve their purpose. But when I was advised to “move for the night” and asked if I could “handle a weapon” by some very important, powerful people, I realised that in spirit, maybe the DPC’s message, if not the DPC’s (or its supporters’) tactics is right: We should do what it takes to survive.
At a primal, human level, I secretly wished that I hadn’t “made enemies” by taking on Gen Gul. At a professional level, I was pleased and even proud. Personally, I was scared and then angry. But as a Pakistani, I broke down a little this weekend. And all the king’s horses, and all the king’s men, despite their power and potential, couldn’t put my family and me together again. Truth led to lies. Lies led to video-tape. Video-tape led to jihad. And then nobody, even the jihadis themselves, could do anything more to help.
The writer is host of the show Ikhtilaf, on Aaj TV.
Published in The Express Tribune, February 14th, 2012.