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November 13, 2012

Remembering Iqbal Haider


November 13, 2012

It’s difficult to believe that Iqbal Haider is no longer in our midst. Just about everything about him was larger than life, from his loud greeting to his unannounced arrival at some unearthly hour at night with a cheerful smile, as if to say, “Come on, wake up, break out the food; you know we only live once and are dead forever.”
And, indeed, he lived like that. His was a full life. I can think of no good cause that he did not espouse; no evil that he did not raise his voice against; nowhere that he was not prepared to go to speak out on behalf of the oppressed, the disadvantaged or the poor.
He ultimately lost his job as law minister for supporting, of all people, the right of Shaikh Rashid – then an MNA but imprisoned on some frivolous charge – being allowed to attend parliament when in session.
A furious Benazir Bhutto had demanded to know why the foulmouthed Shaikh Rashid had been allowed out of prison without her consent and asked who was responsible for the decision.
Iqbal Haider immediately said he had done so, because it was the law, and offered his resignation in the same breath, and BB, by then too far launched in her tirade to seem to have second thoughts, accepted it there and then.
As it happened, Iqbal was right. And, as he sauntered into my room after the cabinet meeting, there was not a word of recrimination or resentment for the public dressing down to which he had been subjected.
He liked and respected BB too much for that; he owed her a lot and, like many of us who did, could not entertain a wicked thought about her. So he returned to his office, took leave of his officers, went back to the unkempt quarters he occupied in Islamabad and flew home to Karachi, the city he loved.
The subject of Iqbal’s resignation was a taboo subject with BB. So I really never got to know why it had upset her as much as it did. But several months later, when she suggested that I lead a delegation to Brazil for the inauguration

ceremony of the new president of Brazil (to compensate for the long hours I had put in in the Prime Minister’s Secretariat), I told her that a federal secretary was not the appropriate level for the occasion and pointed out that the US delegation was being represented by Attorney General Janet Reno. “So who?” she asked, somewhat impatiently. “Iqbal Haider,” I replied. BB paused, looked up from the file she had been working on, and said, “All right,” showing that she harboured no grudge against him.
I dashed off to inform him. “Groovy,” I recall telling him (“Groovy” was the nickname his hairstyle earned him), “you are leading the delegation to Brazil and I’m your deputy.”
There were hoops of joy (actually, affectionate abuse), at the other end of the line, only because we would be in Rio at Carnival time.
A devoutly secular man who passionately believed in Jinnah’s words that “religion has nothing to do with the business of the state,” Groovy had an unerring eye for trouble in the making. He foresaw the curse the Taliban would become and missed no opportunity to say so.
At a time when most of his peers thought the fanatics and extremists were at worst a nuisance, he pointed to the lethal danger they posed and, of course, heaped the blame on the military.
But he was much more scathing of his fellow civilian politicians for tolerating extremism. He understood their motives, scoffed at them and, on this count, at least, held them in contempt.
Seldom in public life in Pakistan has there been a man who spoke up for women’s rights as forcefully as Groovy did. He believed women were stronger than men, more patient and braver.
He was never condescending towards women and somehow, to me at least, sounded much more convincing and balanced when arguing with them than with men. Women seemed to sense this and reciprocated the respect he accorded them.
Groovy loved to travel. And in London he spent much of his time with my brother. He loved the good life but, as often as not, would end up eating his favourite desi dish in some small Pakistani-run restaurant after charming the owner into producing what he wanted and with the chapati of just the right size and thinness.
If he was a difficult customer, none of them showed it, and by the time the bill arrived, the owner was feeling guilty that he was charging a friend.
For some reason, Groovy felt there was no more important relationship for Pakistan than India. And he was determined to play his part in forging a friendship between the two countries.
He never turned down an invitation to India, and while there endeared himself to Indians. He once told me that he never ran down Pakistan to the Indians, “I tell them the truth about us.”
“Well, Groovy,” I recall saying once, “that amounts much to the same thing if they don’t admit the truth about themselves. Don’t you get it?”
“No,” he countered, “the truth is catching up with them. Look at the corruption issue. They thought we were more corrupt, but the sums involved in India are staggering and they don’t talk about our corruption anymore.”
Groovy was a much-sought-after guest at TV talk-shows. His command of Urdu was flawless and his criticism of people and policies in Urdu was trenchant, measured and devastating. Though, of course, his English was good, often when we appeared together he would turn to me and ask what the word he was searching for was.
And, invariably I would reply with something outrageous and inappropriate that could not be repeated on TV. Groovy would burst out laughing, and much of the time the whole scene had to be reshot. When the programme was going out “live” and that luxury was not available, Groovy would warn me before we went on, “Bastard, don’t make me laugh.”
There was not a crumb of pretence and hypocrisy about Groovy, which is rare among politicians. He was by nature so open, spontaneous and genuine that it was impossible for him to hide what he truly felt, and it is to his eternal credit that he didn’t try. In comparison his sins, such as they may have been, were trifling and I am sure He will assess him accordingly and forgive them. After all, he gave to his country all he had, which is enough surely to gain a friend in heaven.

The writer is a former ambassador. Email: [email protected]

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