Part - I
Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital for half a century, was conceived as a peaceful retreat, away from the heat and dust of this country and the humdrum of its people.
For a long time, the city neither looked nor felt like Pakistan. A foreign diplomat quipped that Islamabad was 15 kilometres from Pakistan and everyone seemed to agree. It had no pretensions of being an economic or cultural centre. Ironically, this city could not even become the political centre of the country. It was simply the administrative capital of Pakistan since under the 1962 Constitution, the National Assembly was to be located in Dhaka.
In its early years, Islamabad had no cultural life to speak of. An American compared its quiet demeanour to that of Washington’s Arlington cemetery. Another foreign visitor went around Islamabad and then asked, ‘Where is the city?’
It must, however, be recognised that Islamabad has grown into a city over the last two decades and some inhabitants affectionately gave it a pet name – Isloo – and began to call themselves Islooites.
In the absence of anything worthwhile to identify the city, someone coined the slogan, “Islamabad the beautiful”. A giant billboard reminded you of this special feature as you drove past Chaklala and joined the artery now called Expressway. Islamabad finally had a claim to fame, and with its background of Margalla hills, broad avenues and prim horticulture, this claim sounded credible. Foreigners or visitors from other parts of Pakistan willingly admitted that Isloo was indeed an attractive, if not a charming, capital city.
Islamabad’s importance as capital changed depending on whether the country was under civil or military rule. Military rulers, anxious about their hold on the army, preferred to keep their abode in Rawalpindi. Pervez Musharraf ruled the country from his small office next to the army house while the main secretariat remained Aiwan-e-Sadr. His senior staff used to shuttle between the two cities depending on where the chief was holding fort or court.
Civilian presidents from Ghulam Ishaq Khan onwards and prime ministers from Benazir Bhutto onwards were based in Islamabad. The civil secretariat as well as the air and naval headquarters were built in Islamabad. But the defence ministry and the GHQ remain in Rawalpindi.
Occasionally, when Rawalpindi felt the civilians were growing too big for their shoes, the 111 Brigade in Rawalpindi would send a couple of army vehicles to the Prime Minister House to settle matters, with a few more trucks to PTV and Radio Pakistan buildings to see that the change was conveyed to the nation at large.
Islamabad’s profile grows under civilian rulers, but practically all of them have their power bases and constituencies elsewhere. So they keep shuttling between Isloo and Lahore, Karachi or wherever they come from, often treating the former as an obligation and the latter as their true love.
A large number of civil and military officers have chosen to live in Islamabad after retirement, for its serenity and safety. But the only people who belong to Islamabad are those who grew up and went to school in this city.
With this background to our still young capital city, I literally sat up when Dr Tahirul Qadri declared that he was going to lead Pakistan’s biggest ever long march to Islamabad and turn Blue Area into Tahrir Square a la the Egyptian spring. Enfin, something worthwhile was coming to Islamabad that might change its image forever. My excitement was short-lived because a number of dramatic and tragic developments shifted attention to Balochistan, Swat, and the LoC.
Sit-ins in Quetta, Karachi and other cities signalled that the ‘seeds’ of revolution were germinating outside Islamabad. Some rebellious types staged a sit-in outside Bilawal House, which serves as the president’s camp office, and even roughed up two leading ministers of the Sindh government. The prime minister had to travel to Quetta to defuse a highly explosive situation but that was possible only by sacking the most inept government in Pakistan.
The Karachi incident raised an important question viz the president effectively moving out of Islamabad. What were the implications of leading a mass movement to bring down the government if its real head was not physically present in the capital? But the situation in Balochistan having been defused, even temporarily, it was clear that all was not lost for a revolution to be staged in Islamabad.
The media was on board, the interior minister did his best to keep the heat on and the MQM leader made timely interventions to keep the attention riveted to the budding revolutionary movement. The PTI made helpful noises in a milder tone to add credibility to Qadri’s promise to deliver a long march. Only the TTP was economical in statements about the looming march on Islamabad.
Sunday, January 13 – D-day minus one – finally arrived. The long march went through prolonged labour but eventually got off to a modest start. Meanwhile, Islamabad, which is normally very quiet on Sundays, became fearful as it wore the look of a container terminal. Islooites began to feel the pinch in many ways, particularly from the extra road closures, followed by difficulties in filling petrol in their vehicles. The unkindest cut was the ban on movement between Rawalpindi and Islamabad.
Monday, January 14 – D-day. While the TMQ’s long march gathers momentum on the national highway, Islamabad has come to a standstill. A normal working day has been converted into a ‘no work’ day. Transport is off the roads, more containers have been brought to block crucial junctions, airport is out of reach, ministries paralysed, hospitals with less work than normal.
The government has again succeeded in its overkill. No sign of revolution other than Qadri’s supporters, who have made their way to the Blue Area. The march is getting bigger and slower and the wait longer. TV networks are on fire but D-day will pass without the long march making it to its promised Tahrir Square.
Tuesday, January 15, D-day plus one. Dr Qadri reaches the Blue Area around 2 am. A little late to stage the revolution as scheduled but an encouraging move. The revolutionary message will be delivered not at the venue suggested by the interior minister but closer to the seat of power, next to a semi-roundabout unimaginatively named D-Chowk, not as in democracy but because it is a semi circle, looking like a ‘D’. The wait will go on for another twelve hours as a heated debate rages on about the number of participants in the march, by now turning into a rally and eventually into a sit-in around the ‘D’. Dr Qadri has taken position in a secure container in Islamabad and the revolution is about to kick off.
To be concluded.
The writer is a former ambassador. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org