Mission objective: to get a journalist in Pakistan to visit Faridkot village and write for The Hindu about what people there are saying about their now internationally known ex-resident, Ajmal Amir ‘Kasab’, the lone surviving gunman of the 10 who carried out the Mumbai attacks, a year after he was caught and put on trial.
Mission status: Failed.
When The Hindu was planning its Mumbai attacks anniversary coverage, one of the ideas was to do a report from Faridkot, a village in the Depalpur tehsil of Okara district in the Punjab province. It was after Kasab’s origins were traced to this village that the Pakistani origins of the Mumbai attacks started to unravel. A write-up from there would make interesting reading.
Indian journalists resident here are barred from travelling within the country — the same goes for Pakistani journalists resident in India — except to Lahore and Karachi. That cut me out, but I promised to find another journalist here to do the needful.
I thought it would be easy. After all, it was Pakistani journalists who had traced Kasab to Faridkot last year. The journalist, who first broke the story in TheObserver of London, was also Pakistani, though a British citizen. And it was no secret anymore that Kasab belonged to this village.
As I began asking around, I realised this was going to be more complicated than anybody had imagined. Firstly, no one wanted to talk over the phone about it. One journalist told me he had been advised not to write anything in the Indian media. Another said he would think about it, and never got back.
I increasingly got the feeling that a trip to Faridkot was seen as one of the most hazardous journeys that a journalist could undertake in this country. Finally, a friend spoke to a friend, who gave me the contacts for a Lahore-based journalist who was ready for it.
I sent him an email detailing what was required of him, by what date, and how much we could pay him, and he agreed. I looked forward to his report, but bad news arrived first.
The press rights watchdog, Reporters Without Borders, put out an alert saying two journalists in Depalpur, the town nearest to Faridkot, were in police lock-up since November 10. They had been arrested on the alleged charges of trying to steal a mobile phone and money from a car parked outside the Depalpur Press Club.
Quoting Lahore-based journalists, the watchdog said the real reason for their arrest was that both were helping an international news organisation do the same story on Kasab’s village. One of them was an office-bearer of the Press Club.
I learnt that an Islamabad-based journalist of this news organisation, a Pakistani, travelled to Depalpur on November 12. He met his would-be facilitators in the police lock-up and they advised him to drop the story. Other journalists in the town also gave him the same advice. He decided to make the eight-km journey to Faridkot anyway, despite not finding anyone to accompany him.
In the two hours he spent in Depalpur, he was shadowed closely by unidentified men. When he reached Faridkot, he was accosted by more unidentified men, who asked him what his purpose was. He told them he was a journalist and a Pakistani and had the right to visit any part of his country. From their authoritarian conduct and tone, the journalist was left in no doubt that these men belonged to an intelligence agency.
When he attempted to talk to the villagers, the men took his microphone away, disconnected it from the rest of his equipment and returned the whole lot to him, asking him to leave without any further ado. When he refused, they asked the villagers to force him to leave. The journalist finally decided to leave when he saw some men in the village, armed with big sticks, coming up towards him.
The journalist managed to glean that Kasab’s family no longer lived in the village, but nothing further beyond this.
It can only be conjectured why the Pakistan government has decided to wall off journalists from Faridkot, especially as it is already known all over the world that Kasab belonged to this village. Possibly, the government wants to deny media, both in Pakistan and abroad, the opportunity to hype up once again the connection between the Mumbai attacks and Faridkot — and by extension, Pakistan.
When I asked the Lahore-based journalist if he would still want to write for us given the circumstances, this was his reply: “Hi, there is a very hostile situation in Faridkot, especially for journalists. Nobody has permission to enter the village except the locals. So it is impossible for us to go there and make something. Anyways, my information is that after the incident the whole family of Kasab is shifted somewhere and nobody knows about them. Situation is that nobody wants to talk about them. Regards.”
We decided to drop the story. The two Depalpur journalists remain in police lock-up.