A bird’s eye view of Saddar Karachi. — New Age/Abu Jar M Akkas
MOMENTS before we landed at Jinnah International in Karachi, we had noticed almost an even development across the city, nothing like the patches here and there that we see when we fly over Dhaka. An old city like Karachi must have grown unplanned; but it seemed that at some point, someone dared to straighten things and could undo, to a large extent, what was not planned.
The Pakistan high commission in Dhaka wanted us — nine journalists, including one from a newspaper based in Khulna, and an assistant professor of international relations in the University of Dhaka — to see Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad, speak to people and get to know the difference between what Pakistan is perceived as and what it really is all about so that our judgement in future could be informed.
We were a group of 10 — ‘do auratein and eight gents’ as our protocol officer from the Sindh press information told an immigration officer at Jinnah. The eldest of us was ABN Mobaidur Rahman of the Bangla daily Inquilab, imposing his decision on others at one moment and asking not to be forced to do anything even when all others want it the next.
After we had been named for the tour, by our offices or the high commission, we had a meeting with Ambreen Jan, Pakistan’s press counsellor in Dhaka. It was at the meeting that Ambreen Jan proposed that Mobaidur, for whom it would be the fifth visit to Pakistan, should lead the group because his hairs are grey enough to have been amenable to reasons. And he left his mark all the way we travelled. He had to be handled quite a few times and could be controlled on one or two occasions.
The day we landed in Karachi was Saturday (July 22, 2013) and a general strike was in force because gunmen had shot dead a Muttahida Qaumi Movement leader, Sajid Qureshi, a provincial lawmaker, his son and a pedestrian as they were leaving a mosque after Friday prayers. Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan is later reported to have claimed the responsibility for the attack in continuation of its earlier announcement of targeting the ‘secular’ MQM, Awami National Party and the Pakistan People’s Party.
When we reached the commercial district of Saddar Karachi for the board in the Hotel Al Harmain Tower, on Raja Ghazanfar Ali (Khan) Road (formerly Somerset Street) as a cement plaque in one corner in the crossing sported, the general strike was over. There were not many people on the road but when we were back on the road in a hired microbus headed for a mobile outlet in Clifton Block 9 to buy SIMs, the city started waking up to the daily business.
The mobile outlet was closed. But many shopping malls were open, or they had opened just after the strike hours. As we had nothing to do for the night but to dine, in or out, shopping frenzy began. Karachi, or Pakistan for that matter, began to appear different from what we had so far heard about. This is not a place where anyone walks about pulling out a gun although business establishments of note and many individuals have private security guards. But still anything can happen any moment anywhere despite not being in a war zone.
The MQM leader had been killed in Karachi the day before we reached there. Gunmen also killed 10 people, nine of whom were foreigners, in Gilgit-Baltistan the day after we had reached Karachi and the Pakistani Taliban bombed the convoy of Sindh High Court justice Babar Maqbool in Karachi, killing eight security men, on July 26 a day after we had reached Lahore. There are security threats but they all appear to have taken this for their way of life.
The Gilgit-Baltistan incident also prompted the Pakistan authorities, at the direction of the high commissioner in Dhaka, to deploy a security squad for us in Lahore and Islamabad.
The next morning on Sunday, the weekend, we began our schedule with a tour of Mazar-e-Quaid, the tomb of Pakistan’s founder Muhammad Ali Jinnah, where Pakistan’s first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan and Jinnah’s sister Fatima Jinnah are also buried besides graves of Sardar Abdur Rab Nishtar and Nurul Amin.
The tomb’s custodian Ather Mir, a retired army officer much reverent to Jinnah, took us around the tomb, the premise and the museum. Other graves in the premises have names written in Urdu on one side and in Bangla on the other. Why are there Bangla on the graves when Jinnah in a public meeting at the Ramna Race Course in Dhaka on March 21, 1948, made it clear that ‘the state language of Pakistan is going to be Urdu and no other language.... Without one state language, no nation can remain tied up solidly together and function’?
Pakistan’s first constitution, laid out later in 1956, in Article 214 (1) says: ‘The State languages of Pakistan shall be Urdu and Bengali.’ The language movement of 1952 in the erstwhile East Pakistan that resulted from the 1948 incidents resulted in the independence of the land from the erstwhile West Pakistan in 1971. The bilingual policy of the government of the day, however, continued to be in the constitution of 1962 until the third constitution was framed in 1973.
Jinnah has remained the greatest leader of Pakistan, even with his secular slant that becomes evident from his efforts centring on the first national anthem, Aye sar zamin-e-pak (O, Land of the pure), which he asked ‘Urdu-knowing Hindu poet’ Jagannath Azad to write. The anthem had been in force for a year and a half before Pak sar zamin shad bad (Blessed be the sacred land), took over.
But no counter knowledge about Jinnah could develop, probably because he died shortly after the partition and the following rulers, who were not that much charismatic, tried to create a nationalism based on the tenet that Islam was the foundation of the state, set him aside ideologically and allowed no criticism of him or his work. There were even court cases and verdicts regarding the religious affiliation of Jinnah, who had a non-sectarian stance, after his death.
Some people resident in Karachi said that there were still many more people with a secular leaning but they were not willing to speak out in fear of being branded as leaning towards Hinduism, or even India. Islam is what the state was founded on and this has remained the best selling plank for all — but there are many who are opposed to, but do not oppose, the tenet, projected by the ruling class.
In place of women observing hijab, we rather found young girls, along with boys, in European dresses, some coming on the streets from shopping malls or cinemas, holding hands and walking into cars well after midnight without bothering about any social frowning. There were many girls who were not even wearing scarves. We saw only a few girls, understandably from the lower class, in niqab, with their elders, not even wearing scarves, behind them. In our hotel restaurant, which seemed to be a famous place for dining out, we saw a few women wearing burka. A female official in Islamabad later said that women and girls in Karachi were far more ‘advanced’ than they were in Lahore and Islamabad. She also asked us if there was any segregation between man and women in Bangladesh. We had, of course, been to only three cities and, that too, in a week.
A few of our fellows watched films in cinemas in the Atrium Mall, which was across the Inverarity Road by our hotel, on the first two nights. The mall has half a dozen cinemas where four of the screenings were English films and one Hindi — Yeh Jawani Hai Deewani; the other is an Urdu (Pakistani) film. Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq’s Islamisation had hit hard the Pakistan film industry, with restrictive provisions in registration laws beginning from 1979 to well into the mid-1990s. The film industry in Pakistan was still struggling to recover from the setback.
Abu Jar M Akkas is news editor at New Age.
printed on October 7, 2013