A death wish?

September 25, 2022

In some ways, a visit to Islamabad by someone permanently based in Karachi is a drastic change of scene. And what would be the meaning and the purpose of this hop across the length of the land?

For me, the expectation was to get some insight into the swirling political storm and try to make sense of what lies ahead for this jinxed nation. I was in Islamabad on Thursday and Friday, in the midst of crucial political developments.

On Thursday, of course, Imran Khan had his date with the Islamabad High Court (IHC). There were all kinds of speculation about how it would go. Those who had predicted that Imran Khan would sail through this encounter, dodging the possibility of a guilty verdict in the contempt of court proceedings – which would entail disqualification – have gained a bit of credibility in my eyes.

Still, there was a surprise in the fact that the PTI leader finally apologized. “I do apologize if the court feels I have crossed the line”, Imran Khan said. He added that he was “even ready to go to the judge and tender an apology before her if she feels threatened”.

The five-member larger bench headed by Chief Justice Athar Minallah then observed: “We are, prima facie, satisfied with the apology rendered by the respondent. Let him file an affidavit for consideration of this court before the next date is fixed”. Thus, the case is set to end not with a bang but with a whimper – though other cases pregnant with the prospect of disqualification and still pending.

Anyhow, I found the environment in Islamabad rather tense as reflected in fiery exchanges between Imran Khan and Rana Sanaullah. The former prime minister went on a rampage this week. He has, as he promised, become very dangerous. What this actually means is that speculative reports about reconciliation were unfounded. Or something happened on the way to a deal of some kind.

Respected commentator Zahid Hussain wrote: “Khan has now taken the battle to the citadel…The security establishment now finds itself pitted against a powerful populist force and a cult that it once itself propelled”. But democracy could be a part of the collateral damage that Pakistan may suffer in this crucial conflict and the rise of a populism that is wedded to downright fascism.

What is sad and disconcerting in this situation is that the media’s attention remains largely distracted from the unprecedented human tragedy of the floods that have made global headlines and moved world leaders to express their concern. But Imran Khan and his party and his followers do not seem to be exceptionally bothered by this apocalyptic scenario.

This is one impression that my Islamabad interlude has left with me. In Karachi, we feel closer to the tragedy, though Hamid Mir of Geo stands out for having travelled from Islamabad to cover the floods in Sindh and Balochistan. He has shown us the human face of a catastrophe that is getting more severe and life-threatening for entire communities that were washed out by the floods. Otherwise, Islamabad is another country, and they do things differently there.

No, I am not invoking that old adage of Islamabad being so many kilometers from Pakistan. It is not that unreal now in its existence. Still, I recall my initial reaction to Islamabad when I saw it as Pakistan’s death wish because of how it was conceived and built on a pompous scale during times when the sense of alienation and deprivation was building up in the then East Pakistan.

Would that fearful appellation be still valid, when political and economic discontent is festering in smaller provinces, particularly in Balochistan? Will the additional sufferings brought by the floods intensify their alienation from, say, Islamabad?

Every time I am in Islamabad – and these opportunities of very short visits have been frequent – this guilty thought pricks my mind that Islamabad perhaps is a bad omen for Pakistan. Just one sign: how many residences of a head of government in any country of the world would be larger and more majestic than the PM House in Islamabad?

Then, put beside this image a montage of this country’s ground realities, as manifested in the dehumanizing poverty and degradation of the ordinary people. Take a look also at Pakistan’s rank in the various global surveys that relate to social development. The point I am making is that the glory of Islamabad cannot hide the truth of what Pakistan actually is.

During my visit to Islamabad this week, there were ample opportunities to share thoughts about the present state of affairs with a number of distinguished personalities from different sectors of society. This was a privilege provided by my involvement with the Pakistan Peace Festival held on Friday under the auspices of Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies (PIPS), an independent think tank led by Muhammad Amir Rana.

Actually, I was a member of the jury that selected the recipient of the Pakistan Peace Award from among ten nominees and we had our meeting on Thursday. The launching of this award was the main ceremony of the festival that was attended and addressed by a number of prominent individuals, and it became possible to speak to them on the sidelines.

Let me refer, very briefly, to just the Peace Award. It is not possible to introduce the ten nominees, all very familiar names. The jury included Hina Jilani, Dr Qibla Ayaz, Dr A H Nayyar, Wussatullah Khan, Dr Farzana Bari, and Romana Bashir. We had extensive discussion on Thursday evening and the person chosen was Jalila Haider, the first female attorney of Balochistan’s – or Quetta’s – Hazara community.

The focus here was on the struggle for building peace and promoting tolerance and democratic values. An initial draft of the charter of peace was also presented on this occasion. Yes, the civil society is striving for a progressive Pakistan in very adverse circumstances. But peace remains elusive, and intimations of violence and disorder are rising on the political front. And Islamabad is the stage on which the opposing forces will finally clash.

The writer is a senior journalist. He can be reached at: ghazi_salahuddin hotmail.com