The reputation of Pakistan’s spy agency, the Inter-Services Intelligence, precedes it by miles. Variously called the “deep state”, or more popularly by its acronym, ISI, it is a dreaded outfit both in India and Pakistan. In India, its involvement is mentioned confidently after most terrorist attacks. In Pakistan, people whisper its name every time an elected government gets toppled or critics of the Pakistani army suddenly disappear from the face of the earth.
With such a grim reputation, when your dinner host turns out to be a senior official of the ISI, as happened recently to the Indian media delegation that visited Pakistan, a faux pas or two was naturally par for the course. “Is it a think-tank?” asked one member of the Indian team innocently, after our host introduced himself as an ISI honcho. But once it was clear who was buying us dinner at the posh Islamabad restaurant, there was no stopping the barrage of questions.
“See, I have neither horns nor fangs,” the official smiled as way of assuring his Indian guests. But why was he there? Well, he informed the Indian media that he wanted to put across ISI’s point of view on the ongoing peace initiative. “We’ve realised that we cannot live in an environment of hostility with each other,” reasoned the official. For the rest of the dinner, he patiently answered questions on topics ranging from terrorism directed against India to the evolving situation in his country. Predictably, he didn’t take responsibility for much of the terrorist acts in India that originated from Pakistan, including 26/11. But he tried to convey that on the government’s attempt to have peace and normalise relations with India, the ISI was on the same page. To make sure his message and intent are not misunderstood, he had two nicely packed coffee-table books for each guest. Guess what they were on? One was on the Sikh heritage in Pakistan, the other on the various churches in the country. The ISI conveying Pakistan’s secular credentials in these times of religious extremism? Something is surely up.