IT WAS different this time. Karachi, as we landed there in the afternoon on March 20, seemed different from what I saw in June 2013. Out of Jinnah International about an hour after, as we — three journalists and two politicians along with officials of Pakistan authorities — headed towards Marriott, we could see the in-progress construction of a 62-storey tower, Pakistan’s tallest so far, in Clifton. We could notice sparsely-spaced construction work of a number of tall buildings, which were rare to come by in 2013, and roads. Traffic on the road has also been thick as has security been heightened in some places.
Food scene appears to have progressed fast. A string of brightly-lit eateries, many having more than one storeys with the top ones having no walls or roof, along the Marine Drive in Clifton suggests that more and more people, having money, started loving to dine out. With eateries lining along the beach on one side and sparsely populated areas farther off on the other side, a car ride through the long, wide road at night was enough to drain our day’s weariness. But we had to have our dinner and Rafiullah, a graduate from Gordon College in Rawalpindi, an official of Pakistan’s information ministry who flew to Karachi to receive us, suggested that we should head for Port Grand area for authentic food.
The name of Gordon College rang the bell for a revolt that took place in 1968. A protest began on November 7, 1968 with a minor incident involving some students of Gordon College. A strike was organised and Gordon College students, joined in by students from another college later, marched in procession to the deputy commissioner’s office. The police charged at the students with truncheons and opened fire. The situation worsened; and over the next two days, students from various colleges picketed government offices and fought running battles with the police. Campus and towns across West Pakistan were aflame with protesting students within days. The storm that brewed out of protests initiated by Maulana Bhasani in East Pakistan, subsequently joined in by students in the province, caught the whole of Pakistan. The movement eventually turned into a mass uprising against General Ayub’s military regime and resulted in the overthrow of the regime in March 1969.
Walking down the walkway at Port Grand, I told Rafiullah about the incident and he said that he knew of it. Port Grand is a recreational area built along the waterfront of the 19th-century Native Jetty Bridge, which they also call Netty Jetty Bridge. Urdu having no distinct v-sound seems to have played a role in the corruption of the word ‘native’ into ‘netty.’ We chose an eatery called Afridi Inn Restaurant, sat on the top floor, which was only roofed, and ordered food. By the time we got to start eating, two hours had already passed, leaving us famished.
As we were getting out of Port Grand, I said good-bye to an old banyan tree, which we saw when we reached there, standing a few steps inside the entrance. The banyan tree, with aerial roots all around, stands majestically, professing: ‘I continue to stand with majestic grandeur; having witnessed the might of Arabian Sea… I can vividly recount past memories of our elders with sigh. I have seen those who have passed away.’ The tree is said to be more than a century and a half old. A banyan tree as old as that can easily command respect. We started for the hotel about midnight, with people still swarming the roads. Karachi wakes up late and never sleeps, almost. It came to be known as the ‘city of lights’ for its vibrant night life in as early as the 1960s and has successfully lived up to the reputation since then.
The next morning, two news items, in the Express Tribune, caught my eyes: a story on the leak of questions of Class VIII that government teachers were selling for Rs 100–300 — leaks of questions of public examinations also shake our academic scene here in Bangladesh — and the prospects of learning Chinese at the Sukkur Institute of Business Administration. The number of students learning Chinese registered a sharp increase because of the high salary that it could earn the learner. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has a role to play here. The tour, however, officially began with a visit to Mazar-e-Quaid the next morning. Ather Mir, a retired army officer much reverent to Jinnah, was the tomb’s custodian when I was there in 2013. He has retired. Another officer from the army, Asif Zahoor, who filled in the position, said that he was not so well versed in Jinnah affairs but was trying to learn. I was taking photographs inside the Jinnah museum housed on the premise as I did the last time but as we were getting out, I noticed a sign reading: ‘Aiwan mein tasveer banana mana hai (Photography is prohibited here),’ with ‘No photography’ in English written above. I felt a bit hopeless but then, showing it to others in the group, took a snap of the sign.
As our meeting scheduled with the chief minister of Sindh could not take place, we decided to take a quick glance of the PAF Museum where we found the first aeroplane that Pakistan’s governor general Jinnah used, well curated in a corner. The plane has the governor general’s emblem outside the cockpit. When we were coming out of the main building, the curator, Mohammad Khalid Junaid, requested us to sign the visitor’s book. Syed Badrul Ahsan, who was a colleague of mine at New Age earlier and was associate editor of the Observer at the time of our travel, signed the book with text both in Urdu and English. I only put my name in Urdu. The curator seemed happy.
We had an entourage of security protocol all through, with police personnel from the foreigner’s security cell and a car full of Pak Rangers personnel. It was time to head for the Golf Club, just by the Arab Sea, with Mumbai in one direction and Dubai in the other. We noticed development work just completed or in progress along the beach. We started for the Karachi Press Club after the noon, for a discussion with the media people and lunch at the magnificent old, heritage building of the club.
As we talked about press issues there, an old man from GeoTV, Afsar Ahmed Khan, in passing mentioned that he had a friend, from his childhood, in Dhaka. When I asked about his friend, he said that he was the famous Urdu short-story writer Zainul Abedin, popularly known as Bihari Zainul in Dhaka who died on March 9. I walked up to him to give him the bad news that his friend had died. He was completely choked with emotion, with tears welling down the cheeks. He embraced me. I could not, however, meet two who I became friends with during my earlier visit — the witty Farooq Moin, who is revered by all journalists in town, and poet Fazil Jamili, who has recently had a volume of his poems published by the name Gumnam Admi Ka Bayan (Tale of an ordinary man). I also wished I could have met another, Ameen Rajput, a journalist about my age, who I became friends with online. I had left a message for him before we started for Pakistan, but he opened the message a couple of months after I had returned to Dhaka.
Off we were soon to Jinnah International to fly to Islamabad. We landed at 9:30pm and reached Hotel Serena an hour and a half after. A hectic time was forthcoming with six meetings the next day.
The day, March 22, began with our visit to the Institute of Strategic Studies. The chairman of the institute, Khalid Mahmood, a retired army officer and former diplomat, sat us in his room for a short introduction and then we went upstairs into a room full of research fellows, young and old, with questions that hardly rolled to answers. The discussions revolved round the Bangladesh-Pakistan relations and mostly related to why Pakistan, from our perspective, needed to offer apologies for the 1971 atrocities and why Pakistan, from their perspective, would not do so. Debates ended inconclusively, but on a friendly note.
On reaching the House of the Federation, or the Senate House, at noon, we were, first, taken along a monument, a memorial of unsung heroes of democracy, inaugurated in front of the parliament house on March 10 this year. A girl, an intern, explained the images, one after another. As we reached the end from left to right, two of us, later joined in by the girl, started reading a poem by Faiz Ahmad Faiz, written on the memorial in white on red: ye haath salaamat hain jab tak | is khun mein haraarat hai jab tak | is dil mein sadaaqat hai jab tak | is nutq mein taaqat hai jab tak | in tauq-o-salaasil ko hum tum | sikhlaayenge shorish-e-barbat-o-nai (So long as these hands are alive, | so long as there is warmth in this blood, | so long as there is sincerity in this heart, | so long as there is strength in this mind, | I and you will teach to these iron collars and chains the clamour of lyre and flute.)
Once inside the building, which looks like the Great Hall of China, we were stood at the entrance to a corridor for a video documentary of Pakistan’s struggle for democracy which set the tone for the walk down Gali-e-Dastoor, or the constitution corridor, opened to the public in September 2016. The corridor takes on a stroll down the annals of constitutional history of Pakistan through varying political climate. In the first of the five panels in the corridor, there is an image, part of proceedings, showing East Pakistan’s Dhirendra Nath Dutta’s taking up the issue of language for the first time on a motion in the constituent assembly session, chaired by Quaid-i-Azam Mohammad Ali Jinnah on February 25, 1948, followed by a photograph of students of the University of Dhaka ‘demonstrating on the language issue in 1952’. We were handed a guide to Gali-e-Dastoor, which seems to have mistakenly referred to Bangla being written in Devanagari. Although Bangla has the alphabet of Sanskrit, it has always had the script of its own and used that script. In the third panel, there is an image of two hands holding two parts of a torn rope, with the caption ‘Less said the better’, referring to the emergence of Bangladesh through a war of independence against the Pakistan army in 1971.
Gali-e-Dastoor, inside the building, and the mural, in front of the parliament house, seem to be efforts to celebrate the essence of democracy, which has always faltered as time has rolled since the partition of the Indian sub-continent. After a briefing by the senate secretariat people on the parliamentary procedures, where we learnt that the recommendations of the parliamentary standing committee, unlike what they are in Bangladesh, are binding on the ministry, we were taken into the upper house for a short reviewal of an ongoing session. Senators were busy discussing the passage of a bill reviving the military courts for two more years. The bill sailed through. Although the bill is mired in controversy examined in light of democratic principles, everybody we talked with about it seemed happy.
Our tour of Pakistan revolved round the issues of security, involving terrorism, and communications, especially the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, and it was meant to give us glimpses of both. We were, about an hour and a half after, taken to the Inter-Service Public Relations office, to be greeted by a brigadier, Anwar Ahmed. We were shown a documentary on how the ISPR works to create awareness of terrorism issues. There we met three female captains during the lunch. This seemed to be a feature to notice. We also met a female Pak Ranger at the Wagah border later in Lahore. A trend of women coming to the front breaking free of the male chauvinistic setting became gradually manifest.
We went to the foreign office for a meeting with the foreign affairs secretary, Tehmina Janjua, and she said that it was her first meeting with a foreign delegation after her assuming office on March 20. Tehmina Janjua spoke about Pakistan’s relations with Bangladesh and the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation and expressed their readiness for further improvement in bilateral relations. The next destination was Pakistan Television, where we met the chairman, Ata ul Haq Qasmi, known for his witty newspaper columns. He had been involved, as playwright, with PTV for 35 years. One of his most popular drama series was Khawaja and Son in the late 1980s.
The buildings of Pakistan Television station in Islamabad and Bangladesh Television in Dhaka look similar. The television station in Rawalpindi-Islamabad set up in 1965 was the third station in Pakistan. The second was the one in Dhaka, set up in December 1964, and the first in Lahore in November 1964.
Ata ul Haq Qasmi said that he would like to take up a programme for the exchange of television dramas and drama series with Bangladesh Television for being dubbed and aired. We had a tour of the station, which runs 10 channels and news bulletins in all major regional languages.
To be continued.
Abu Jar M Akkas is deputy editor at New Age.
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