Given that battle lines have been drawn between Pakistani and Indian media instead of any actually existing on the ground, it did not come as a surprise that Barkha Dutt, one of India’s ace journalists, was subjected to tough, and a couple of harsh, questions from a somewhat cynical audience during a session at the Karachi Literature Festival 2016 on Saturday.
But having nerves of steel, battle-hardened by years of experience in the field, Dutt held her own and responded with a well-struck balance between composure and her customary sting.
When noted physicist Pervez Hoodbhoy, in his query, delved into India’s recent infatuation with reviving its Vedic glory – to the extent that Vedic mathematics had been introduced in universities there – and compared it with how Pakistan had pushed religion to the extreme and paved way for fanatical ideologies to develop at its educational institutions, Dutt downplayed the impression that the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) or other hard-line Hindu groups would be able to build such clout in her country.
“We have counter-narratives to extremist ideas,” she noted. “But the question is as to how do you de-colonise without being superstitious,” she added.
“There’s nothing wrong with exploring your past, but that’s not the same as saying that there were aircraft in Vedic times.”
When others in the audience too pointed out the rise of the saffron tide in India, Dutt hit back that her country had not produced an Ajmal Kasab so far.
“I read [Jamaat-ud-Dawa chief] Hafiz Saeed’s Kashmir Day statement about shedding blood in India. Nobody can make such statements and roam around free in India,” she added.
The Indian journalist also refuted that anti-Pakistan rhetoric played a part in her country’s elections. “Apart from one or two speeches [against Pakistan], I don’t recall any other where Pakistan was mentioned. We focus on our own issues.”
Making a point that communal riots were witnessed in India during Congress’ watch and the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) was strident in opposition, but imaginative when in government, Dutt maintained that in her country, a political party had to shed its dogma when in power.
In fact, she noted, when Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif had come into power, he was seen in India through the context of his conservative background, whereas, he had turned out to be a moderate influence.
When a questioner bluntly asked her if she was in a state of denial, a query that was followed by scattered claps in the audience, Dutt quickly snapped back that the very same query, if she had put forward to him back home, would have prompted the same crowd response.
The session was held to launch Dutt’s book, “This Unquiet Land - Stories from India's Fault Lines”, with renowned scholar Ghazi Salahuddin in conversation with the Indian journalist.
In her book, Dutt not only encapsulates her journey as a journalist, the plight of suffering humanity witnessed first-hand, but to truly connect with her readers, she lifts the veil off her personal wounds too – being subjected to sexual abuse as a child.
Speaking on Kashmir, a subject that has remained close to her heart, she observed that the solution lay in the status quo. “The theatre of conflict has moved out of Kashmir. The issue is resolvable, but Pakistan needs to focus on the problems that are on the minds of the common people,” she added.
Dutt noted that Pakistan and India linked peace to Kashmir and terrorism, respectively. “Peace won’t be possible until the issue of terrorism is sorted out,” she added, pointing out the recent Pathankot attack.
On the visa complications between India and Pakistan, the Indian journalist quipped that both countries needed to grow up.
“A terrorist won’t obtain a visa to come to the other country and attack,” she remarked. “It’s absolute rubbish!”
Dutt shared her own visa problems coming to Pakistan when she had to tweet to then interior minister Rehman Malik, who immediately helped her out.
However, the minister’s kind gesture had gone on to become an issue discussed in Pakistan’s parliament.
She also recalled the time when Nawaz Sharif had helped her reach Larkana following Benazir Bhutto’s death by taking her along in his plane. “He [Sharif] appeared shaken by the assassination of Benazir, once his arch-rival in politics,” she noted.“I believe that was a turning point in his political career, and played a part in making him a more mature politician.”
Having a few controversies to her name, a curse that perhaps comes with fame, Dutt noted that even though she loved her country and its army, she had put up with labels including a Pakistani agent and a non-resident Indian.