February 20, 2020
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'Why Say All This In India?'

Pakistan high commissioner Ashraf Jehangir Qazi is in the news. His report on the speech of Outlook columnist and Pakistani journalist Najam Sethi in New Delhi was used by the Pakistani government to make his arrest. Sethi was picked up at gunpoint f

'Why Say All This In India?'

How do you react to the boycott of all functions that you participate in by the Editor's Guild of India?
First of all, I'm not answerable to anyone in India for doing my official duty, which is to report on the activities that take place here. I think it's a completely misplaced decision, but it's their decision. I have always sought a very intimate and positive relationship with the media here, because it has a very important role to play in the development of India-Pakistan relations.

The note you sent your foreign office on Najam Sethi's speech was very strong: you used the term 'contemptible treachery'...
I'm not going to discuss what is purported to be the text of an official communication from me to my government. But I will say that I had an extremely negative reaction to the talk given by Najam Sethi. He was speaking in the context of the Kewal Singh Memorial lecture series to an elite Indian audience on the subject of Pakistan and the 21st century, with Mr Gujral in the chair.

I had not been invited to the lecture, contrary to the impression that has been given. I receive invitations from the India International Centre regularly, saw that this talk had been listed, and took my place in a back row. I had another engagement and intended to slip away. Mr Gujral saw me: kindly, and from the purest of motives, he called me up to the podium. Once there, I couldn't leave in the middle of Sethi's speech.

Sethi portrayed Pakistan in the blackest terms. According to him, Pakistan during the past 50 years had suffered a whole range of crises and had become a failed state. He said there is no hope of anybody coming and getting Pakistan out of the series of crises. Apart from the fact that he was factually wrong, that he was using the most provocative language, the question arose: what was his purpose?

If he were addressing a Pakistani audience and expressing his own views about a country which belongs to everybody in the audience, that's different.

What's the point of telling an Indian audience that Pakistan is failing? You're addressing an audience that, if I may say so bluntly, has right from the start had very grave reservations about the creation of Pakistan, even though right-minded Indians including Mr Vajpayee have openly said we accept Pakistan. Now an eminent journalist comes and suggests that Pakistan is barely going to make it to the 21st century, what message are you conveying to your Indian audience? You are confirming their deepest reservations, also suggesting implicitly that there's little need to be engaged in extremely difficult negotiations with a country that is not going to be around for very long. His talk was extremely objectionable. I felt the speech was truly pandering to the audience, though it did not want to listen to an unrelievedly pessimistic account of Pakistan, an account which suggested no solutions.

I thought his speech wasn't critical, it was cynical. Criticism is based on optimism; cynicism is where you shrug your shoulders and write it off. And that is what I found extremely negative. In my view it's contemptible, it's treacherous in the sense that it's a great let-down. Over the past two years, we have tried to do things differently, to seriously address difficult issues keeping in mind the larger vision: India and Pakistan need to maintain good relations in order to make South Asia the focus of success in the 21st century. Uske upar to pani pher diya usne (He trampled on those hopes). My report was in response to my extreme disappointment with his presentation, which I saw as no contribution to India-Pakistan relations, no service to Pakistan.There's no mention in my report that anybody is an agent, that anybody should be proceeded against in law. However, separately, the authorities concerned are investigating him. Not just on this basis, in fact his wife has said that his detention has nothing to do with his Delhi speech.

Is Pakistan so fragile that a speech could really harm the country?
There's no question of Pakistan being harmed, the question is of being extremely disappointed by an eminent person delivering himself of such negative views. He's being investigated to see whether charges need to be framed against him, a perfectly judicial process. His rights are protected, his family has access to him and if he is charged, he will be dealt with according to law, openly and transparently.

The problem was that he criticised Pakistan in India, but his views can be accessed on the Internet ....
If he has said or written something, even if it is critical, in Pakistan, one knows that this is addressed to a Pakistani audience, the motive behind it is a Pakistani motive.

In India, one would expect a person like Sethi to say that you are all aware of my views, generally speaking, but here I'm talking about Pakistan in the 21st century, so I must talk about it in the context of India-Pakistan relations. But he didn't take that tack at all. All he did was to repeat to an Indian audience opinions which suggested that Pakistan isn't going to make it.

In my response, I said that he had ignored the achievements of the past 50 years. Pakistan's economy has grown, our middle class has increased, we've moved from an era of martial law into democracy.

Sethi intervened to say the high commissioner has to do his duty, he has to say these things. He wasn't even willing to entertain these qualifications.

So Indians can't go to Pakistan and criticise India and vice versa?
I do not see Indians writing off India. I don't see Nirad Chaudhuri coming to Pakistan or proceeding to China. We were morally outraged and politically offended by what Sethi said. Even Mani Shankar Aiyer responded by saying, you have your position on Kashmir, but if you portray your country in such negative terms, how do you expect the Kashmiris to join you? I thought Sethi's was an irresponsible performance, treacherous in the sense that it let down Pakistan's interests. The term 'treacherous' reflected my reaction. I can assure you that any Pakistani seeing that live performance would have reacted even more vehemently.

Is there evidence he's a RAW agent?
There is no mention in my report of his being a raw agent. There may be other evidence - he is being investigated for much more than just the speech, for all kinds of things. I have no personal knowledge of whether he is a raw agent or not, I have made no observation on that.

The way Sethi was arrested wasn't quite legal. There was no warrant?
I understand my government spokesman has not agreed that was the manner in which he was taken in; that is not accurate.

I agree that nobody should be harassed, or put to that kind of experience, but the fact is that the authorities in Pakistan say it did not happen that way. His wife has said it did happen that way.

Did someone deliberately leak your note to the press?
I'm not going to talk about that. But I do want to emphasise the fact that I have responded to his speech for the reasons I cited earlier. It's not my report which matters here, what matters is the text of his speech - published in his own Friday Times and the Indian media - which said, Najam Sethi calls Pakistan a failed state, the Pakistan high commissioner has none of it and there was a right royal debate between them in front of an Indian audience.

Have you have become a political football in this whole mess...
I won't comment on such speculation.

You've been a great favourite of the Indian media, but the Sethi incident has soured that relationship.
I regret that because I value my relations with the press. I also believe that they are working under a complete misapprehension. I must reiterate that I owe nobody an explanation for doing my job as the Pakistan high commissioner and reporting on political activities - including Mr Najam Sethi's speech.

Even what is being attributed to me is political comment, ethical comment. Sethi should be answerable to public opinion in Pakistan as to what motivated him to come and give such an unrelievedly pessimistic picture of his own country.

With great respect, I must say that I was a little pained to see Mr Gujral - for whom I have nothing but the highest respect - using the phrase that the high commissioner filed an fir. Now an fir is a police report asking for criminal proceedings against a person. That was an unfortunate misrepresentation of my report to my country.

Even Kuldip Nayar has asked for your recall.
I would say that was an intemperate response. I have great respect for him, and I shouldn't want to comment on him. I think there is a sense of solidarity with a fellow journalist, and a perception that I have played a role in Sethi's arrest. None of that is true.

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