India and Pakistan; same but different: In conversation with Meena Menon

Updated: Aug 20, 2020

Natasha Maheshwari


Meena Menon was The Hindu’s correspondent in Islamabad, Pakistan till she was expelled by the Pakistani authorities in May 2014. During her 9-month stay in Islamabad, Ms Menon interviewed Pakistani politicians, spoke to people from persecuted minority communities, interviewed Partition survivors and gave us a peek into the life of the ordinary person across the border. Her book ‘Reporting Pakistan’ is an accurate, unbiased myth buster and a treasure trove of her experiences as an Indian journalist in Pakistan. Ms Menon speaks to Not Your Newspaper about her 9-month stay in Pakistan, Partition and Indo-Pak relations.

In your book ‘Reporting Pakistan’, you have spoken about an ‘idea of Pakistan’, an idea that people who have not visited the country share; you call it an “unshakeable feeling in the minds of many people that it must be a rotten place, anti-Indian, full of bearded men wanting to blow themselves up, and with guns and ammunition stored in mosques, burqa-clad women, and people straining at the leash to attack India”. You wrote your book in 2017 — from then to now a lot has changed, how do you think that idea of Pakistan has evolved in the minds of the average Indian?

I think that in the mind of the ordinary person on the street, there is a preconceived notion of Pakistan.

When I was a reporter with the Times [of India], there was a riot in Jogeshwari East, a suburb in North-West Mumbai. I had gone there with a journalist colleague to cover the violence; I was walking around when someone said: “don’t go to that side — it is Pakistan, it is full of bombs, people will attack you” [Pakistan was synonymous with any large Muslim pocket]. I thought the man was joking; I had been to the other side of the ‘border’ and families were mourning their dead and injured.

[a few years later] I was attending an event in Kurla and we were looking for a place to eat and someone said, “udhar matt jao, wahan mussalman ka khana hai, Pakistan hai” [translation: don’t go there, you will find Muslim food, it is Pakistan].

[In a similar incident] I was invited to speak at an event in Wardha (a city in Maharashtra), I had a slideshow of pictures of the everyday life in Pakistan. After the talk, the host told me, “Meena, what is this? Tumne bahut badi gadbad ki. I had invited people from out of town and your talk was so disappointing”.

Like many others, she [the host] had a preconceived notion of Pakistan and expected me to deliver a talk on what she thought it would be like. But I told her what I saw — not what I thought or imagined. I lived there for 9 months: mine is a lived experience but she did not want to accept that.

[why do we have these ideas and preconceptions about Pakistan?]

We have these preconceptions about Pakistan because of the lack of exchange between our countries, though things had improved for a while. I don’t know how stringent the visa regime is anymore; but a few years ago, it [number of visas being issued] was increasing. Now we can’t even courier stuff or send books to Pakistan. This ridiculous visa regime is not people friendly and perhaps they [the governments] want to keep it that way. It is preventing us from travelling freely across borders and forming our own opinions. Earlier we had Indian correspondents in Pakistan and vice-versa. However, in 2014, even that stopped for Indians, for the Pakistani journalists it was 2011. This thinking that imposes so many restrictions is archaic, it has to go! We need to have a healthy view of our neighbouring countries. The visa regime needs to be relaxed and we need to be able to interact with more people from Pakistan. We have a shared history with many families on both sides of the border. It is a big human tragedy that they cannot meet often. Also the fisherfolk who are jailed, the many prisoners rotting in jails, such an inhuman situation!

We are not addressing the reason for the existence of these preconceived notions. This hostility is not natural, as I found out after meeting so many people in Pakistan who were warm and friendly and understood that the State was keeping people apart. We have so many connecting factors — Bollywood for example. Our shared culture has been systematically dismantled in a deliberate manner to create this hostility.

[Has the hostility increased in the last 6 years?]

I don’t know. But it was quite deep to begin with. We already thought it was a wicked country and we didn’t want anything to do with it. Our idea of Pakistan is limited to the fact that it sends terrorists to India for its proxy war and bombs our cities - which is true of course, and unacceptable, but the question is: do you hold an entire people responsible for it? When I went to Islamabad, there were many jokes about going to an enemy country and so on. Ordinary people are not enemies really. As governments, what have we done to resolve this terrorism, this elephant in the room that is Kashmir? Even the pretence of dialogue doesn’t seem to exist now.

A lot of people in Pakistan do not agree with this approach of proxy war. I had also visited Karachi as part of a Mumbai Press Club team before my posting, and it was on the anniversary of 26/11. Everybody condemned it and said such things shouldn’t happen.

There is a chasm between the people of India and Pakistan. By throwing out the media and preventing cultural exchanges, we are widening that divide. As two countries we need to have a more mature approach.

You have spoken about the chasm that exists between India and Pakistan and the lack of unfettered and unbiased exchange, are efforts being made to bridge this gap? And are they effective?

There have been several efforts to bridge the gap between India and Pakistan. There are cross border exchanges, business delegations used to visit in the past, peace groups also have meetings, there are exchanges between school students, children in both countries write letters to each other under an innovative programme, there’s also Aaghaz-e-Dosti [an Indo-Pak friendship initiative started by Ravi Nitesh;]

Judicial commissions used to visit each other to assess the situation for prisoners which includes fisherfolk, there are prisoner exchanges as well. Earlier so many art and cultural events used to take place. Nandita Das’s film on Manto was based on her visits and interactions with Manto’s family in Lahore. So things do happen, but in terms of exchanges, not so much in a free and frank manner or as much as is desirable.

So not everyone is buying into this ideology of hatred. There is a definite constituency for peace and sanity between India and Pakistan. In the first two decades after Independence, things were not so bad — there were no visas, people crossed the border freely. Feelings have hardened over the years and both governments have done little to improve matters..

Both governments stoop very low in their attempts to show their hostility. The government [Indian] does spiteful things like not allowing Faiz Ahmed Faiz’s daughter, Moneeza Hazmi, to speak at an event in India. [see,].

Why do we have to be so petty? The immediate counter to this will be that Pakistan does so many mean things. Well this can go on forever, we need to break this cycle.

When I was in Pakistan there were two spooks who would follow me around, a common practice for all Indians who would be tailed or have people stationed outside their house, specially Indian diplomats. When I was leaving, they asked my taxi driver to charge me extra because I was Indian. It shows a very sad side of a state, specially when almost everyone in Islamabad I met was so warm and generous.

[Excerpt from her book 'Reporting Pakistan': Beard would be pompously scribbling notes about everyone who came out of the house and when I looked out, he would duck into the trees…he had a permanent sneer, and looked quite triumphant questioning people who came to my house and, I suspect, writing down the vehicle numbers.]

Due to our hostile actions and lack of trust we are not allowing that constituency of peace to grow. So between the two governments, I think they’ve done a good job of keeping this sub-continent on a roil.

It has been 73 years since Partition took place, and you are one of the select few who was able to go to Pakistan and meet our friends across the border, what are the commonalities you saw in India and Pakistan? And what are the differences?

Often, you don’t feel like you are in another country, though Islamabad is not like most Indian cities. It is designed by a Greek architect and there is no familiar colonial architecture, something that sets it apart from Karachi or Lahore. It is opulent; it was a city built for the bureaucracy. There are massive houses, servants, huge gardens with men in kurtas tending to them [on her visit to Pakistan, writer Shobhaa De said that Islamabad reminded her of the European city of Bonn].

But they also have slums called kachchi abadis, just like us. There is a huge disparity between the rich and the poor.

The ordinary people in Pakistan were very nice. The only thing that went wrong during my visit was that I was asked to leave, otherwise, it was a productive stay and I was able to write on many issues. Everyone, even government officials and others, was very helpful and frank when I called to interview them . No one said things like, “you’re an Indian I’m not talking to you”. Despite the baggage of spooks following me, no one refused to meet me. They would be questioned later on why I had met them. At times it was hilarious also.

[Bollywood is a huge uniting factor]

The city’s first mall had opened. It was at a walking distance from my house and had a multiplex cinema. People loved Bollywood. So a few of us would walk down and watch films every weekend. I watched all sorts of Hindi films there, even the really bad ones which I would have ordinarily avoided back home.

[Were there any differences?]

There was no public transport, and most people had cars. The poor travelled in shared vehicles which were erratic.

Alcohol is not available in public. There are parties, but again it’s not public. Unlike Mumbai or Karachi, Islamabad does not have much of a nightlife, but there were some places where we could go out and eat at night. The men mostly wore shalwar kurtas (ones on the street) that was one big difference, and one saw few women wear saris in Islamabad except Indian diplomats’ wives and journalist Marvi Sirmed (who had a huge red bindi on her forehead as well). Yet there was a journalist who wanted my packet of bindis, the only one I had, which she sported at parties!

[how do they treat their minorities? Is it as bad as national and international publications tell us it is?]

I met a few Hindus in Islamabad and their only demand was a temple in Islamabad; the only temple was empty and did not have an idol. They also wanted a cremation ground. Some of them were extremely successful and leaders in their profession. In rural Sindh, on the other hand, a lot of Hindu girls would be kidnapped, and forcibly converted for marriage. It is an ongoing issue.

The Ahmadis in Pakistan are not even considered Muslims —their mosques are called a “place of worship” they are treated horribly and live in fear all the time. I managed to visit this place of worship, but no one was even willing to talk me to me there. I didn’t know the situation of Ahmadis was so bad till I actually met them. Sectarian hatred is also directed towards Shias and one of the regular targets is busloads of Hazaras returning from Iran on pilgrimage. These are uncomfortable truths. Some of their stories were really haunting.

[Excerpt from her book: Some institutions in Pakistan have to pretend they don’t exist. I was to experience this when I went to a ‘place of worship’ of the outlawed Ahmadi community in Islamabad, and in Karachi it was the women’s shelter home. Nothing gave you an indication of what was inside. The multiple gates and the high-security walls, for good reason, hid many vulnerable women who were relieved to be away from the trauma of social ostracism.]

Christians are also living on the edge. In 2012, a Christian girl, Rimsha Masih, was sentenced to death for blasphemy, though she was finally acquitted by the court in 2012 and granted asylum in Canada. I met her Christian neighbours who had been forced to flee their homes in Meherabad, and were living in precarious conditions in Islamabad. [see, Ms Menon's article:]

Then there was Rashid Rehman, a lawyer defending a man accused of blasphemy, who was shot dead in his office. There are many cases like this and they go on.


You’ve spoken about your hikes to the Margalla hills. Who/what are the other people and institutions you remember Pakistan fondly by?

The Pakistani government was nice enough to give my husband a last-minute visa so he could accompany me to Islamabad. On Sundays, we would go trekking to the Margalla hills, at the foothills of the Himalaya. There were some lovely trails and was at a short distance from my house.

I was also very happy to meet Sufi singer, Abida Parveen; writer, Intizar Hussain; and Shoaib Sultan Khan. Mr Khan had initiated the Aga Khan Rural Support Development Programme in Pakistan. I did not know that India and Pakistan had collaborated with other countries on a a SAARC poverty alleviation project. In fact the National Rural Livelihoods Mission in India came out of these exchanges between India and Pakistan. Pakistan had several women’s self-help groups, micro-credit facilities, income support groups and banks for women. In fact, the women’s bank was started much before the bank in India.

[see, Ms Menon's article about Mr Khan:!]

You obviously have Pakistani friends. You mentioned in your book that it is the BJP and not the Congress that gave them hope. What is their opinion of the leadership in its current form?

I have not spoken to them recently, but when I was there, I sensed that they supported the idea of a BJP government. The image of [Atal Bihari] Vajpayee’s bus journey to Lahore had remained with them. They thought that the BJP would help resolve some of the Indo-Pak tensions. But Modi is no Vajpayee, and they have probably realized that by now, though there were friendly overtures between Nawaz Sharif and Modi early on.

Jinnah believed that a Muslim minority would be subjugated and become second citizens in a Hindu majority India. Do you think he foresaw the India of 2020? Do you think the Partition was justified?

I can't predict what Jinnah would say now or whether Partition was justified or not.

[But] for me, I don’t think it was the best way of resolving an issue of such great complexity. I accept that Muslims are terribly disadvantaged in India, more so now, but the enormous cost of the Partition: the millions of people who were murdered, raped, brutalized, and burnt to death was staggering. It was a monstrous cost to achieve something that perhaps could be dealt with in a more rational manner.

[For the sake of argument] If Partition was the best solution, has it helped the Muslim minority sects in Pakistan? Muslims are not a homogenous community and the Pakistani government has not given all Muslims equal rights. They have denigrated and removed the identity of Muslim-hood from the Ahmadis, for instance. Pakistan was the result of a deeply complex issue of two communities. But you cannot just divide and rule; you cannot just divide India into two countries and expect that to resolve problems. I can’t even think of using the word ‘solve’ as far as Kashmir is concerned. Nehru’s optimism remains just that — a sentiment!

[Excerpt from her book: In a speech in 1949 on foreign policy, Nehru said, ‘There is also no doubt in my mind that it is inevitable for India and Pakistan to have close relations—very close relations—sometime or the other in the future. I cannot state when this will take place, but situated as we are, with all our past, we cannot be really indifferent to each other. We can either be rather hostile to each other or very friendly with each other. Ultimately, we can only be really very friendly, whatever period of hostility may intervene in between.’]

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