April 3, 2001


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The Rediff Interview/Exiled Pak Poet Aftab Hussain

'Let me leave India. That is all I want'
'Let me leave India. That is all I want'

Pakistani poet Aftab Hussain was exiled from his country for publishing a collection of poems by Atal Bihari Vajpayee during the Indian prime minister's bus trip to Lahore. The collection titled Jang Na Hone Denge was presented to Vajpayee at a ceremonial reception in Punjab by Hussain.

But the same book that brought Hussain his moment of glory, was to change the course of his life. A few months later, when Army Chief Pervez Musharraf overthrew former prime minister Nawaz Sharief in a military coup in October 1999, the ISI wanted Hussain to confess that the book was published at Sharief's behest to please Vajpayee. The poet refused and had to flee to India.

A year after he crossed the border, Hussain has been denied asylum in India and stands very disillusioned. With no fixed address and perennially on the run, he agreed to meet Basharat Peer in an underground subway in Delhi.

What prompted you to publish the translation of Indian Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee's poems in Pakistan?

The collection of Vajpayee's poems Jang Na Hone Denge are from two of his books Meri Ekiyaavan Kavitaaeinand Qaidi Kavi Rai Ki Kundliyaan. Jamil Akhter, an Indian friend of mine translated these poems from Hindi to Urdu and asked me if I could publish them in Pakistan. I agreed. The collection of poems was still lying with me when Vajpayee was to come to Lahore by bus.

At that time there was festivity in Lahore. The people on the streets, the Pakistani media, almost everyone was talking about Indo-Pak friendship and how people wanted peace.

Publishing this book then was my little way of contributing towards cementing this friendship. It was the first time in Pakistan's history that a book written by an Indian prime minister was being published there.

What kind of reactions did the publication of Jang Na Hone Denge draw?

Very positive. The then Information Minister of Pakistan Mushahid Hussain lauded its publication and asked me to present it to Vajpayeeji, which I did at the farewell ceremony held in his honour at the Lahore governor's House on February 22, 1999. A Pakistani newspaper Daily Pakistan reported on Vajpayee the poet.

When did things go wrong?

Soon after the military regime took over. Various intelligence agencies started knocking at my door about my Indian connections and began asking details about the idea of the book. They even questioned my friends.

Around February 2000, they made me an offer: 'Say that Nawaz Sharief asked you to do it and you lose nothing, or else face the consequences.' On my refusal (to do so), they ransacked my house in my absence. I was left with two options, either do as they say or leave Pakistan. My conscience did not allow me to say something that was not true so I left for India and reached here on March 16, 2000.

Where is your family?

I am a bachelor. My mother and two brothers are in Pakistan. They were tormented by the military regime and my friends would keep me informed about them. Now I have no idea where my mother and brothers are and in what condition. I miss them a lot.

You have not been staying in one particular house. Why?

I have been staying with different friends due to financial difficulties. I kept changing houses as I did not want those who are responsible for my plight to know about my whereabouts.

Why did you choose India?

I had to get out of Pakistan quickly. There were three options -- India, Iran and Dubai. Considering the nature of relations that Iran and Dubai have with Pakistan, I feared they might send me back. Further, India is a secular, democratic country and we share strong cultural and lingual ties, hence I decided to come to India.

How did the Indian government react?

Initially even Home Minister L K Advani said that if I apply for asylum 'they will consider it.' And I did apply.

What happened after that?

I got no reply from the foreigners division of the home ministry. I was simply forgotten. Moreover, my visa for the first three months allowed me to remain in West Bengal, Orissa and New Delhi. On applying for a renewal, I requested that I be allowed to go to West Bengal, Orissa again and also to Aligarh and Lucknow. Instead I was frustrated because I was restricted to Delhi.

Did you approach the government for a work permit?

Yes, I approached the government for a work permit but all I got was dashed hopes. They just made me file applications and run from pillar to post for nothing.

I have no financial resources as such here but my Indian friends helped me a lot, they would privately get me some translation work so that I could survive.

Not only that, when I asked for permission to let me submit my doctoral thesis for evaluation to some Indian university, even that was not granted. All that the government officials would tell me is: 'In your case the orders will come from the top brass.'

What happened to your application for a visa extension?

I had written again to the home minister and sent copies of my application to the President of India, prime minister, home and external affairs ministers. The response there was a deadly silence. I underwent severe mental agony due to this approach. One full year of my life has been wasted in these uncertain circumstances. I could not follow any creative pursuits.

And you were you trying for an asylum in India till recently?

Yes, I wrote to United Nations High Commission for Refugees asking them to interfere and help in deciding my case. UNHCR showed its concern and wrote to the external affairs ministry. It expressed its fears that could be deported and wanted my case to be transferred to it (UNHCR). Meanwhile, my visa had been extended for a month till March 30.

I also filed a petition with the National Human Rights Commission on February 22, 2000. On March 9, the NHRC issued a notice to the external affairs and home ministries, asking them for my case report within a week or else face action. The report was to come on March 16.

What happened next?

Instead, the home ministry informed me on the phone on March 14 that my asylum had been denied. They did not even give me any reasons. Further I was told: 'You have sixteen more days. Leave India by March 30 -- the date your visa expires.'

I went to UNHCR again but they expressed their helplessness. As the Indian government had asked them keep off my case as it was "politico-humanitarian."

Did you approach any other countries for asylum?

Yes, I did. I asked a few countries to give me a visit visa but they refused because of the politically sensitive nature of my case. But they agreed to consider my case for asylum. The conditions for that were: I need to land on their soil or the UNHCR should recognise me as a refugee and recommend my case.

Did you approach the UNHCR again?

Yes, I did. I met the India chief of UNHCR, Augustine Mahige, on March 30. But even after lending me a patient ear, he said: "We cannot even touch your case till the Government of India allows us to." I surrendered my passport to the UNHCR and informed the home ministry about it.

You got into trouble for publishing Vajpayee's poems in Pakistan. Did you contact the PM for help?

After meeting the UNHCR chief, the very next day -- on March 31 -- I wrote a letter to Atalji. I wrote that since I had been denied asylum which implied that he did not want me on Indian soil, he should let the UNHCR take over the case so that they could arrange my passage to some other country that would grant me asylum.

Considering that Atalji himself is a poet I enclosed with my letter, a poem I wrote in these moments of distress. The poem is titled Khwaab Mehenge Padte Hain (Dreams come with a price) and gives a message to all those who dream of bridging various boundaries, shedding prejudices -- it tells them not to do this -- because they have to pay a terrible price for it. The way I did.

Did the poem arouse the poet in Vajpayee, the politician?

Partially. For, on Sunday, April 1, some officials from the ministry of home affairs contacted me saying that they had been instructed by the Prime Minister's Office and my visa had been extended by two months.

What does it mean to you?

Almost nothing. What difference does it make? I have not been granted asylum or given a work permit. I have decided not go for it.

What do you really want from the Indian government now?

Let me leave India. That is all I want. The greatest favour India can do me now is: Let the UNHCR handle my case and arrange my passage to some other country that can grant me asylum. And give me a visa for the time the UNHCR takes in arranging my departure.

One year in India and a life spent in Pakistan, how do you compare the two?

I think people are the same on either side of the border. Indians are enlightened and secular. And the governments are also no different. The Indian government is only different from Pakistan's autocracy because it is in the garb of democracy.

Aren't you afraid of talking like this about the government while still in India?

You are only afraid when you either want a favour or fear losing something. I have lost almost everything and the only favour I want from the Indian government is to let me leave this country. I am not a criminal or a fugitive.

Photograph: Sayem Mehmood; Design: Dominic Xavier

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