It is nine ‘o clock in the morning, and the area outside the Karachi Press Club has little activity. The usual rush of vehicles and people — both journalists and protesters— is absent as they rise much after the sun.
In a few minutes, the paan-wala arrives. He repeats the five-minute routine he has had for the past seven years: remove the cardboard sheets that cover the ‘Khoka’, set the ‘Supari’ brands in a neat row, uncap the metal pots of Gutka, tobacco, betel nut and coloured coconut and wait for requests of ‘customised paans’.
Opposite the road, in the shadow of a tall office block and seated on six blue chairs, are men who are also getting set for the long day ahead. They look very much like reporters and soon they start doing their duty. They carry notepads, pens and expressions which speak for their ‘nose for the news’. They sit facing the press club, and stare back if one looks at them for too long, eyeing the person for signs of unprecedented activity.
They laugh, joke and whisper among themselves, and give the impression of people who have known each other for a long time. Everyone knows who they are and what they do, even the paan-wala across the street, yet they belong to organisations that are known for their secrecy, their name dreaded by journalists and activists the most.
“Of course I know who they are, they are agency ke banday,” says the paan-wala in one breath, without looking up from the paan he is busy assembling.
Rumours are that years ago, the blue chairs were absent and the men would simply stand all day. As chairs were added to the scene, their network in the journalistic world expanded, and with it their secrecy was lost forever.
The Military Intelligence, Inter-Services Intelligence and Intelligence Bureau – at least three spy agencies send their men to sit on these chairs. Their job is to sit here every day from nine in the morning till nine at night and report everything — from the protests held outside, to the celebrities who go in, to the press conferences held indoors.
Though appearances can be deceptive, and while the six men ‘on the other side’ can apparently blend in with the crowd at the press club, they are not allowed to cross the black grilled gate — mainly because even the gatekeeper knows them by face. And that is the hardest part for them: finding out what goes on inside.
Over the years however, they have found a way out. “We have ‘regular friends’ and ‘faithful journalists’ who let us know what happens inside,” shares a retired professional who has spent several years sitting on one of these chairs. “Sometimes we help the faithful by, say, giving them a mobile card or ‘Easyload’ for their phones.” He also says the help and support can be mutual. The intelligence snoops are also quite happy occasionally filling in reporters on the activities they might have missed.
“The idea is to look for potentially violent activities, make reports and submit it to our office.” In his case, being a retired IB operative, this means the Sindh Secretariat. The others, obviously, send in their reports to their local headquarters. The main groups under scrutiny are the religious groups, whose speeches are noted for potentially violent undertones, and the various nationalist groups. However, even mainstream politicians are of interest to them and their comings and goings duly noted.
Asked if there is any purpose behind all this activity, he maintains they are taken “seriously and action is taken”.
They are obviously hated by the protesters who daily throng the premises, but those they are watching admit that they do not meddle with their activities directly. However, because of their reports which reach the higher authorities, they claim they sometimes get threats for being involved in protests.
Qadeer Baloch, the Baloch nationalist who has been on a hunger strike outside the press club for a long period in support of the missing persons’ cause, says, “they just take notes, but we do get threats or phone calls from the establishment”.
Often, when they approach the protesters or journalists for information, they do not reveal their real names and hide their identity. “I met one of them outside the city courts. He said he was a ‘well wisher’ and invited me to have Biryani with him, provided I shared some information with him,” said an amused journalist. A newsman who walks to and from the press club to and from work every day laughs and says: “Sometimes they stop me and ask what happened inside. I usually tell them. They are harmless, really.”
In fact, he is quite impressed by their note-taking capability. “They collect the gist of every event perfectly. I still need to learn how they manage it so well.”