June 16: “Muzamil Jaleel goes in search of the many Pakistans beyond the stereotypes”
The sun was shining and the temperature already unbearable by noon. The Grand Trunk Road looked deserted, with vast swathes of land around it. For centuries, this highway linked the twin cities of Amritsar and Lahore, before history divided the land and its people. Now, the road hits a bump at Wagah, the Checkpoint Charlie of the subcontinent. It is the only legal border crossing between India and Pakistan. If you doubt that borders are man-made and tragic, Wagah will make you believe that Cyril Radcliffe’s line was a flawed colonial project.
Over the years, I have travelled to some of the most dangerous borders drawn by armies in the mountains of Kashmir, places where a ridge made of one stone is divided between two countries, where soldiers keep never-ending watch from the tiny pigeonholes of their bunkers, where minefields separate families and permission to visit a mother’s grave across spools of concertina wire is a confidence-building measure. The Line of Control is surreal because it just does not run through one of the most picturesque landscapes in the world but through the hearts of the people of Kashmir.
Wagah, however, is strange in a different way. Though the border is highly guarded, the guns are silent. But each day at sundown, before the border guards close the gates for the night, the “beating retreat” ceremony symbolises the senseless machismo of the Indo-Pak relations. An effort to keep the enmity alive even when peace is in the air.
At the immigration counter, the official was pleasant. I was among scores of journalists with visas to cover the Pakistan elections. But once he scanned my passport, he glanced again. The name may have hidden my identity but the place of birth and the place of issue of my travel document had revealed it. I wasn’t a Kashmiri entering any country. It was Pakistan.
‘Not just extremism’
After crossing the border, it took an half-hour’s drive to reach Lahore. Though the smells, the laughter and even the abuses were similar to the Punjab on the other side, the roadside signs were in Urdu. The streets were decorated with election buntings and the poll fervor was everywhere. A 36-year-old banker, Ali Ziyad, said he had to participate. “We feel we are at a crossroads. If I don’t vote, I have no right to complain,” he said. The enthusiasm for the election was unparalleled. “I have never seen people putting up party flags on their rooftops or on their cars. It is a matter of survival for us, ” he said.
As most of my adult life was spent covering the conflict in Kashmir, in my mind, Pakistan was always represented by the gun-wielding young men who sneaked through the Line of Control — or its charismatic cricket team. I had looked at it through the prism of Kashmir. This time around, nobody was talking about Kashmir. Ali Zayed reminded me: “Extremism isn’t the only thing that defines Pakistan. There are many Pakistans inside this Pakistan.”
In dhabas and street corners, I met people who prayed five times a day but didn’t wear their religion on their sleeve. There was irreverence towards the powerful among ordinary people. I realised that Jamat-ud-Dawa’s Hafiz Saeed was no rockstar of Pakistani nationalism; on the contrary, there was impatience and anger at mullahs like him.
The Bhagat Singh Chowk
A campaign to rename Shadman Chowk after Bhagat Singh — it was the place where the freedom fighter was hanged — gained momentum last year in Lahore. It was perhaps the one story that contradicted every notion about Pakistan in India. I went to meet the people behind it.
As I walked up a dark staircase to the second floor of a rundown building, I saw a huge portrait of Bhagat Singh in a room that faced the main chowk. Though the campaign started in 2004, a leader of the Pakistan’s People Party (PPP), Zulfikar Gondal, brought a resolution in the Punjab assembly last year. “There was resistance but we know we will be able to make this happen. We are convinced that Bhagat Singh gave his life for Pakistan too,” said Adam Pal, a young engineer.
The leader of these young men and women is a doctor who left his practice to become a full-time Marxist worker. Dr Tanveer Gondal’s story has the twists and turns of a political thriller. In 1978, he was a student leader of a Left-leaning organisation which had an alliance with PPP. When Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged by Zia-ul-Haq, Khan organized a namaz-e-janaza (a funeral prayer) at Nishtar Medical College in Multan where he was studying. “That is when General Zia got after us,” said Gondal, now popularly known as Lal Khan.
On October 16, 1979, Gen Zia-ul-Haq ordered a ban on all student organisations. “We launched a massive agitation against the ban. The army arrested me. We were jailed and a case initiated against us,” he said. Eventually, he was forcibly moved to a medical college in Rawalpindi. “I was in the final year and I had thought let me finish my degree. But that wasn’t to happen. Once I reached the college, students had already put up my posters. There was no way to stay silent,” he said.
General Zia’s son and daughter were students of the college. “Slogans would be raised against Zia and the military dictatorship almost every day.” When he read a poem by Ahmad Faraz titled Peshawar qatilo (Professional killers) on Zulfikar Bhutto’s death anniversary, a backlash began. He escaped an attempt on his life but in May, the Rawalpindi’s Military Command Council issued an order sentencing him to death by a firing squad. “The only way out was to go underground.” Khan escaped to Netherlands where his cousins lived and finished his medicine degree there. “I spent seven years in exile. But there I started a pamphlet which we still publish, called Jidojahad (struggle),” he said. Khan returned in 1987 even though the sentence against him was still in force.
According to Khan, India and Pakistan can have peace when the workers of the two countries unite. “War is the business of the rich,” he said. “We are fighting for roti kapda makan in Pakistan. That is what a large section of the society needs.” The naming of a chowk in Lahore in the memory of Bhagat Singh is a smaller battle. “We are taking the right wing in this country head on. We are a smaller organisation but we do not compromise,” he said, citing the example of a Marxist lawyer who contested the election as an independent candidate from Southern Waziristan, the tribal area considered the most dangerous place in the world. “It takes a lot of courage but it is happening. There is a battle of ideas going on,” Khan said.
‘Can you find a grave?’
At the hotel, the managers and staff walked
the extra mile for guests from India. They talked about the potential of business and tourism, if a peace deal between the two countries became a reality. No one talked about Kashmir till they heard I was from the Valley. One evening, the bell boy Javaid knocked on my door.
“I heard you have come from Kashmir. I wanted to know whether there is a way to find a grave,” he said.
Javaid’s 21-year-old cousin, Mohammad Afzal Doodi, left to join a militant outfit in Kashmir. “We never saw him again. We heard he was buried there in 2004.” A young salesman in the hotel’s handloom shop too had two close relatives who had been killed in the Valley. Over 3,000 Pakistani young men had sneaked into Kashmir over the years, and had been killed while fighting with the Indian army. Those stories aren’t part of Islamabad’s narrative these days. They came from a different Pakistan.
Courtesy: Indian Express
(The writes is associate editor of Indian Express Delhi)