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|May 14, 1999||
Pak envoy's report to Islamabad sealed editor Sethi's fate
Amberish K Diwanji in New Delhi
The Najam Sethi saga began in India under the auspices of the Indo-Pakistan Friendship Society. It was at the Kewal Singh Memorial Lecture in New Delhi, an annual event to honour the society's founder, that Sethi criticised conditions in Pakistan. That apparently earned Islamabad's ire, leading to Sethi's arrest and disappearance after his return to Lahore.
But what Sethi's friends in India, who are very upset by the incident, believe is that the uproar could have been avoided if Pakistani High Commissioner Ashraf Jehangir Qazi had not been present at the seminar, sharing the dais with him. After all, Sethi was a known critic of the Pakistan government and it was to be expected that he would use the occasion to speak his mind.
Former prime minister and Indo-Pakistan Friendship Society president Inder Kumar Gujral, who chaired the seminar, dismisses this suggestion. "To say that [Sethi's arrest took place] only because the Pakistani high commissioner was sharing the dais is ridiculous. The high commissioner was anyway sitting in the front row in the audience, the entire media had noted his presence, so whether he was up on stage or down is really splitting hair," Gujral told Rediff On The NeT.
Gujral also dismisses the suggestion that Qazi ought not to have been invited to the function. "This is not China where when you invite one section, you keep the opposing side out. It is an open forum. In fact, though the function was a lecture, we asked the high commissioner if he had anything to say in reply to Najam Sethi's statements and Qazi spoke not once but twice."
Yet, this view is not shared by all. Former foreign secretaries S K Singh and J N Dixit are reported to have said that Qazi should not have been seated on the dais with Sethi, because that then forced him to make an official complaint to Islamabad against the Friday Times editor.
Pakistan newspapers carried reports of the letter Qazi sent his government, which was very critical of Sethi and his speech. Qazi's report said that by making such a speech, "that too in India of all places", Sethi's act amounted to "contemptible treachery".
Qazi's report listed aspects of the speech, saying the condemnation of Pakistan was music to his audience's ears. Moreover, his report said, after Sethi's speech, a politician in the audience asked how he [Sethi] could expect Kashmir to be part of such a country?
Gujral suspects Pakistan's domestic politics to be behind Qazi's report. "Why a high commissioner should write a report about a small lecture function is beyond my comprehension," he said. "Such reports are written by junior officials in the embassies. I too have worked as an ambassador and foreign minister and know that high commissioners do not write such reports."
The second aspect is how could such a letter become public? "Reports and letters sent by the various high commissioners and ambassadors to their government are secret documents, which are not revealed to the public. The very fact that Qazi's report became public within a day of Sethi's arrest shows a vested interest and the aspect of internal politics in this whole case."
The former prime minister lamented that though Pakistan had adopted the democratic form of governance, it was yet to learn the virtue of tolerance. "Pakistan will have to realise that democracy and tolerance sleep on the same bed. You cannot have one without the other."
The Indo-Pakistan Friendship Society has expressed concern at Sethi's arrest and subsequent disappearance. Gujral said he is also writing an article on the issue, to be published next week.
Gujral noted that even earlier, such a situation had occurred. "Our very first Kewal Singh Memorial Lecture five years ago was addressed by Asma Jehangir, the human rights advocate in Pakistan. Her speech too was very critical of the status of women and minorities in Pakistan, and when she went back, some hotheads from the Lahore Bar Association sought to disqualify her. But when the vote was held, only 40 people voted against her while hundreds of other members supported her and the issue was forgotten."
The hope clearly is that Sethi's case too will have a similarly happy ending.
Meanwhile, one person in Delhi who has come out badly in the fiasco is the high commissioner. Qazi was very popular in the capital for his sophistication and suave manner. But after news reports quoted his harsh letter that led to Sethi's arrest, his popularity has plummeted.
A former diplomat spoke of how he used to admire Qazi, but is now revising his opinion.
For their part, the high commissioner and his staff refuse to speak to the press on the issue.
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