“Who do you work for? Which Indian agency has sent you here?” I could tell from the tone and rising voices of the mob around me that things could get very sticky very quickly if I didn’t move. I was at Lahore airport in 2011, attempting to take a flight back to Delhi, when a group of people who seemed to be journalists surrounded me and asked for an interview on the impressions of my visit to Pakistan. But the exchange turned unfriendly as what they really wanted to ask about was an interview I had done with a senior Army official. He had said that it was “possible” that those who had trained and guided the terrorists during the Mumbai 26/11 attacks may have been formerly in the military, but that the Pakistani Army had no knowledge of them. The interview had made headlines in both Pakistan and India. The Army had issued a clarification on the comments, distancing itself from the interview. Clearly, the establishment had no intention of allowing me to leave the country without feeling some heat for the story. Back home, I faced more questions — this time on why I had even interviewed someone in the Pakistani military.
Facing the heat for an interview is a part of every journalist’s life, and comes in many forms — from governments who find it inconvenient for a counter-view to be “platformed” to commentators who believe that it is an “anti-national” act to interview officials of an unfriendly country. While much of it comes in the form of verbal criticism, sometimes the displeasure of interviewing the other side takes a dangerous turn. I learned this when I saw a brick smash my car window some years ago after I interviewed an opposition leader in a neighbouring country.
To begin with, bowing to these wishes would mean taking dictations from others on who to interview and when to interview them, whereas a journalist is answerable only to their organisation and to their readers and viewers.
Second, foreign policies of countries are dynamic, and the villains of one day are often the friendly interlocutors of the next. The present government, which forswore contact with the Taliban for several years, now has a “technical team” in Kabul. Indian officials meet with Taliban officials to discuss various initiatives, and this year, even conducted online training sessions with them. Despite anger at the regime in Kabul over denying education to girls or sheltering terror groups, several journalists from the international media and the Indian media have interviewed Taliban officials.
Similarly, while Indian and Chinese leaders held close parleys for years, ties between them today are frosty over the border issue. The question then is: do journalists align themselves so thoroughly with a constantly changing policy that they only do those interviews that are “sanctioned” by the government at that moment? A print agency journalist found this out the hard way when he conducted an interview with the Chinese Ambassador in India, and faced fire from the government over it.
Politicians and leaders, too, change their positions frequently. An interview I did in 2015 with the ousted Sri Lankan President Mahinda Rajapaksa, who virtually accused India of sabotaging the election, was frowned upon by the government, but when Mr. Rajapaksa visited India in 2020 as an elected Prime Minister and received a red carpet welcome, the interview I conducted then with him was considered a “scoop.”
This week, questions have been posed to journalists, including of The Hindu, who conducted interviews with visiting Pakistan Foreign Minister Bilawal Bhutto, and to television network CNN in the U.S., for hosting a town hall meet with controversial former President Donald Trump. The truth is that journalists and diplomats have missions that are separate from those of governments, politicians and powerful establishments. A journalist’s job — to present the first draft of history — is incomplete if it only presents one state-approved view.