NEW DELHI — A freelance journalist goes to Pakistan, meets India's most-wanted man, and sends the Indian Parliament and social media into a tizzy.
Ved Pratap Vaidik, a 70-year-old Hindi-language journalist and former editor, traveled to Lahore this month to meet with Hafiz Mohammad Saeed, the Pakistani man India believes is the mastermind of the 2008 terrorist attacks in Mumbai, which killed more than 160 people, including six Americans.
Saeed lives in middle-class comfort in Lahore even though the United States has a $10 million bounty on his head.
Vaidik — a vocal supporter of Prime Minister Narendra Modi — apparently sought the meeting with the wanted man on his own accord, but that did not stop conspiracy theorists from accusing him of carrying out informal diplomacy for Modi’s new administration.
"Tea with terrorist" was how the popular Times Now news channel described the encounter on Monday. Debate in Parliament stalled Monday and Tuesday over the controversy.
Vaidik, who was part of an Indian delegation invited by the Islamabad-based Regional Peace Institute, told the ABP News channel here that he was given Saeed's phone number by Pakistani journalists. He said he was taken to Saeed’s fortress-like office compound in Lahore, which is guarded by gun-toting men. He also said guns were pointed at him from different vents in the room during the meeting. When Vaidik on Sunday released a photograph of the two men seated on blue plastic chairs, the meeting became a trending topic on Twitter.
"Hafeez Saeed asked me about Narendra Modi. He said Modi is dangerous and now he has become the Prime Minister of India," Vaidik said in an interview to the news agency ANI on Monday. "He said that Modi is dangerous for the whole of South Asia. I said that his thinking is not right. There is no need to fear Modi."
On Twitter, Vaidik posted two images, one with Saeed and the other with Pakistani Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif. "Hafiz says Pakistan will welcome Modi," he wrote.
— Ved Pratap Vaidik (@DrVaidik) July 14, 2014
The Indian government quickly dismissed the idea that it was behind Vaidik’s meeting, with Finance Minister Arun Jaitley calling the meeting "a diplomatic misadventure of a private individual."
Modi came to power in May after a three-month-long campaign during which he accused then-Prime Minister Manmohan Singh of conducting diplomacy with Pakistan even as hostilities continued along the border between the two countries. After winning, Modi invited several regional leaders, including Sharif, to attend his swearing-in ceremony.
Vaidik said he was free to meet anybody as a journalist, but he was later eviscerated on Twitter and on India’s robust 24-hour cable news shows.
"Nobody accepts that you went to meet him as a journalist," Arnab Goswami, the editor of Times Now channel, said to Vaidik on Monday during the prime-time debate. "Do you have a copy of the interview? Do you have a transcript?"
Vaidik complained that he was being treated like a “criminal” on the show.
On Monday, Saeed tweeted his disapproval of the Indian controversy.
"Row in Indian parliament over a journalist's meeting with us shows the extremism, narrow mindedness of their politicians," Saeed tweeted. "Utterly shameful."