My Pakistan visit was my first foreign assignment.
It was very special for me as our seven generations lived there. I made this visit in the year 1980, when Soviet troops entered Afghanistan. Islamabad expressed concern that India might take advantage of the situation as Pakistan is sandwiched between India and Afghanistan.
Our prime minister at that time, Mrs Indira Gandhi decided to send her foreign secretary R D Sathe to Islamabad to assure Pakistan that India had no such intentions. A small press party of five journalists was assigned to cover the visit. I was part of the press party as the All India Radio correspondent. Journey from New Delhi to Lahore in Indian airlines flight was interesting as the Indian press party had the company of the Pakistan Cricket team which had lost the test series to India. the team had stalwarts like the present Pakistan Prime Minister Imran Khan and the legendary Zaheer Abbas.
Among others, Javed Miandad, Asif Iqbal, Wasim Raja, Sikander Bakht were also in the flight. All the cricketers were crestfallen because they were expecting a hostile Pakistani crowd on landing at the Lahore airport. All of us know India and Pakistan are arch rivals. Nothing was a greater sin for people of Pakistan than losing a six-test series to India 2-0.
Gavaskar was the highest scorer on both sides with 529 runs and Kapil Dev the highest wicket taker with 32 wickets. The entire Pakistan team was busy in small groups discussing the pros and cons of their defeat through the flight. As the plane landed at Lahore, team members started pulling each other's leg saying, "beta taiyaar ho jao, pathar padne wale hain". No idea what exactly happened after that as we hurried to catch our next flight to Islamabad.
My visa for Pakistan trip was just for three days. What is interesting is that it was unexpectedly extended by a week on the orders of the then Pakistan President Late General Zia ul Haque. Read on to know how.
This is how it happened: On the second day of our visit, General Zia invited the Indian journalists for an informal tea discussion at his official residence in Islamabad. Besides me, the press party comprised Virender Mohan, UNI, M.L. Kotroo of Statesman, Uma Shankar Dixit of Hindustan Times, a PTI editor and Kuldeep Nayyar, the eminent Indian journalist who was in Pakistan at that time.
I must stop a moment here and mention that General Zia was a good PR man. He attended each one of us individually and entertained us with several anecdotes. He personally served delicious kebabs and several Pakistani delicacies. I still remember, he came up with a box of cigars and said that president Fidel Castro of Cuba presented these to him. Since he does not smoke, he would like to present these cigars to his Indian friends. During this informal chat, I asked him why he was not visiting India. The General asked me to switch off my tap recorder as he said that his reply was to be heard off the record.
The General said if he visited India, the people of Pakistan would expect that on his return, Kashmir should be in his one pocket and Indira Gandhi in his second pocket. He candidly confessed that both are not possible. Suddenly, he switched topic and asked if anyone of us were from Pakistan, which were the pre-partition days before 1947.
I was born in Rawalpindi, I said. Have you seen your ancestral house, the General asked. No general, the visit is too short and there is no time. My visa expires tomorrow, I replied. In a lighter vein, he said that remember, you come to Pakistan of your own but leave only when Zia desires. Do you think if I come to India, I will ever come back without visiting my ancestral home in Jallandar?
He called his press secretary and asked him to ensure that the visa of Indian press party is extended to one week. General Zia again turned towards me and asked, where was your house in Rawal Pindi. I said, it was called Hari Pura at that time. I do not what is its present name. What do you mean, Haripura is still called Haripura.We have not changed the name, said the General. The discussion then shifted towards the Afghan situation. He complained that a large number of Afghanistan refugees were trickling into Pakistan. He suggested that all of us should stay back and visit Turkhum post on Pak Afghan border and also visit Afghan refugee camps near Peshawar. The offer was accepted by the Indian press and we visited both the places to assess the situation.
After meeting the Pakistan President, I asked my driver to take me to the locality where my ancestral home was. I still remembered the address: P-1477, Haripura, Rawalpindi. My driver knew the locality and after reaching there, made several enquiries about location of the house and then stopped in front of a huge traditional house with iron gate, courtyard and more than ten rooms around it.
I stood there speechless, glued to the ground, as if someone had cast a spell on me. Conflicting emotions overpowered me, with tears flowing from my eyes and my throat parched. I was grateful to god that I got the opportunity to visit the land and house where my seven generations lived and where I was born. But it was no longer mine. I had to seek permission even to peep inside the house.This was another country now. I paid homage to my ancestors and applied the dust to my forehead.
I was feeling hurt and cheated. I was getting angry. How could Britishers create India and Pakistan on the basis of two-nation theory of religion. A number of power-hungry politicians connived with British rulers to partition the country into India and Pakistan. Hindus and Muslims, who had lived together for generations became enemies overnight. Rape, arson, loot and killings became the order of the day. Lakhs of Hindus and Muslims lost their lives during partition. Millions became homeless refugees.
As I was standing gazing at our ancestral home, several people of the area gathered around me and enquired about the purpose of my visit. I told them my story. Some of them knew my parents and grandparents.They were highly sympathetic and shared my feelings. Most of them cursed partition and blamed politicians on both sides for the calamity. They all agreed that millions on both sides of the border suffered a deep scar on their soul as aftermath of partition. Some of them invited me for tea but I politely declined as I had still to visit one more place of pilgrimage for me; my maternal grandparents house which was in a locality of old RawalPindi called Syetpura darwaza.
It was dusk time as I reached the place.It was a double story house at the end of the lane. Some of the locals knew names of my maternal grandfather and received me with great affection. This was the very house where the fraud sadhu duped my Kamla masi and left her in a paralytic state for life time. Blog Link for Kamla: https://hsegon5.wixsite.com/website-1/post/here-are-the-15-books-that-changed-my-life-forever
Even at the time of leaving Rawalpindi for India in 1947, my grandparents as well as my mother were under the illusion that it was a temporary phase and ultimately they will come back. They locked their houses and left keys with neighbours for safe custody.It was getting dark now and my driver advised me we should leave for my hotel.
The Indian press party left Islamabad for Peshawar next morning by Pakistan Airlines flight. As promised by the president, all arrangements were made for our visit to Torkham pass and Afghan refugee camps near Peshawar.
Torkham is a major border crossing and trading point between Afghanistan and Pakistan. It connects Nangarhar province in Afghanistan with Pakistan's federally administered tribal areas and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly known as North West Frontier Province with Peshawar as its capital.
Federal Corps with Kurram militia in the lead was responsible for border patrolling and Law enforcement in the area. My father was Office Superintendent with the force. As we landed at Peshawar airport, Pak officials greeted us with garlands. They asked the same question as General Zia had asked us, if any of us belonged to this city in pre partition days and my reply was my wife's ancestors had their home in Peshawar. Since my father was posted in Peshawar, we had rented a part of this house. Our family lived in this rented house just before partition. Pak officials were really kind and escorted me to this house.
To my amazement, the house still had name of one of my wife's ancestors engraved on the marble slab on the side of front door. Those were bad days in 1947 and sporadic rioting had started. Sensing trouble, my father sent the entire family to our ancestral home in Rawalpindi thinking we will be safe there. He stayed back in Peshawar as his job demanded.
One evening, my father was just back home after a game of tennis with his British friends, when rioting mobs surrounded his house. They shouted slogans and started banging his door. Someone in the mob informed them that the man inside house has a loaded pistol and he will kill six people before mob got him. The mob chose another method. They set house on fire . Somehow, my father's British friends got the news of attack on my father’s house and rushed their with the police. The mobs dispersed quickly and police broke open the door and rescued my father. His friends took him straight to airport, and put him on a flight to Delhi.
The trauma of partition chased me throughout my Pak visit.
After spending sometime in the city of proud Pathans, we left for Torkham in a military convoy, guarded by security men with automatic weapons. At Torkham border, we could see Soviet troops manning Afghan post. Crossing the border, a large number of Afghan refugees had entered Pakistan. We met them at a camp near Peshawar and heard their version of situation in Afghanistan. It was time now to say goodbye to Peshawar and catch our flight to Islamabad.
Second day of my visit to Islamabad was my lucky day as I managed to pluck lead story of the day out of thin air. Newsfall was very thin and no briefing was scheduled till the afternoon. I somehow rehashed old material to feed languages and 14.00 hours bulletin. I booked STD call through landline for GNR. In those days, we had no mobiles and totally relied on landline. Getting a call through from a country like Pakistan was a Herculean task.
You had no option but to sit and wait. I rang up telephone operator to know status of my call. I told him, call was important as I had to file a story to All India Radio. I spoke to him in punjabi in local dialect of Rawalplndi. The telephone operator got curious and asked, janab, aap kahan se ho. (sir, you belong to which place). My reply was that I was born in this very city and that my seven generations belong to this place. We shifted to India only in1947 at the time of partition.
The telephone operator got friendly now and said in whispers, thoda sabar rakhiye. Is waqat sadar saab madam Indira ji se baat kar rahe hain. Telephone line top priority mode mein hai. Insha allah, jyon hi inki baat khatam hogi, mein aapki call laga dunga. (Have little patience sir. At the moment, president Zia is talking with Mrs Gandhi. As soon as, their talks end, I will plug you in.) Wow, a scoop was in my hands and the landline was free. It was my lucky day as I quickly drafted this story and waited with bated breath. The telephone operator kept his word and put me through to GNR. The story was lead in all the bulletins. As there was no one from doordarshan on this trip, DD news used all my stories extensively.
In the evening, I went to Radio Pakistan to file my final story, voice dispatches for newsreel and spotlight. Staff there was highly cooperative. After I had finished my job, they called for tea and snacks and some more people joined the group. Most of them had shifted to Pakistan from India after partition. They had several close relatives living in different cities of India. Where ever you went, you found people to be warm, cordial and loving. There was no animosity or ill will of any kind.
The trip was coming to end and me and Virender Mohan of UNI news agency decided to explore Lahore, another historic city. We spent one full day in Lahore visiting several places of interest including Anarkali bazaar, which had lost much of its past glory. Shopkeepers showered a lot of love and affection on us and some of them refused to accept any money for snacks we enjoyed and small gifts we purchased.
As we were moving in the bazaar, we heard a melodious voice and automatically we moved towards it. The voice was coming from a shop where the shopkeeper was playing a cassette on a tape recorder. We asked, bhai bahut pyari awaaz hai. Kaun ga raha hai. Really melodious voice brother, who is the singer. His reply was, janab, hindustan ka naya phankar hai, naam hai Jagjit Singh. Gazal bahut badia gata hai. (Sir, a new singer of India. Name is Jagjit singh. Sings ghazals very well.) I purchased all Jagjit singh cassettes and fell in love with his singing, then and there only. It was time now to say goodbye to Pakistan, my birth place and land of my ancestors. I would always remember the love and affection of people of Pakistan.
I was also glad that I would be back home, just in time for mundan ceremony of my three year old son, which was scheduled for mahashivratri day.