Tuesday March 28, 2023

Long haul from The Mall

February 25, 2023

Often it is impossible to escape Lahore, even if you happen to physically exist at a distance from the beloved city. With the ‘jail bharo’ movement having kicked off in the Punjab capital with due fanfare and with (very?) Indian poet Javed Akhtar visiting and a motivational speaker staying the course which guarantees greatness, this was just the week.

Now, Qasim Ali Shah must be blessed with some special inspirational leadership qualities to be heading a pack of some very talented and some quite well-known people as the chairman of the prestigious Alhamra Arts Council. The credit for this in this season of keeping grudges goes to the interim government in place. Despite pressures and amid accusations of bias, they were apparently determined to stick to what they deemed the best choice.

But the event of the week in Lahore, more specifically on The Mall of Lahore, undoubtedly was the protest by the Imran Khan janisrans. The reality cannot be denied. The ‘jail bharo’ drive of the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf brought back memories of the Gen Ziaul Haq days when it was routine for The Mall to host protesters daring the police to arrest them. I remember watching from close range as committed political workers selected for the honour on the day would surrender their right to be free in an enslaved country and go to jail in support of a cause, an ideology, but more realistically out of sheer love for a personality, their leader. Jiyalas they were called. Z A Bhutto’s jiyalas – a breed that has become almost extinct in the neighbourhood today.

Back in the day, none of them went without a whimper, but a Mukhtar Awan here or there did manage to make a real spectacle out of the protest demonstration with his running around abd acrobatics at Regal Chowk before being finally overcome by the police. Maybe the pro-PTI youngsters experience the same adrenaline rush today as did those who wished the spirited but decidedly much less resourceful and economically-constrained anti-Zia combatants in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s. The Imran Khan faithful might want to ask an old jiyala such as Ghulam Abbas from Sialkot about the toughness of the route – and, more importantly, how desperate crusaders feel when salvation eludes them for long.

Obviously the PTI is not struggling to put just Khan in power. All this mela that has been put together with such great effort and so much energy aims for not a change of faces but change in system, in attitudes. History has been created with the arrival inside Kot Lakhpat prison of those who had the option to have remained aloof and gone on with their usual business at their shrines and other types of business houses. To borrow a phrase from the man behind the unrest himself, these lieutenants of his were under no compulsion to join and lead the people out on the street ( inhain koyee zaroorat nahin thi.)

No one in their right state of mind would want to miss this opportunity to wish the PTI well in their search for durable change. They can rewind by a few years and see how one group of political activists, a party and its once inspirational leader can be rendered irrelevant by failing to keep up with changing public demands. Also, the PTI push could become even more meaningful if, along the way, the party were to find ways of interacting gainfully with sections which may not be ready to swear allegiance to the declared saviour unconditionally.

One departure Pakistan politics badly needs to make is from the tendency to paint opponents as demons and outcasts. It would be too soon to hope for a total change of attitude. That may be a long haul. However, as a new set of party activists emerges on The Mall to earnestly explore a new life, reopening the mixed memory bag about other tricolours having flown here with pride in the past, one overpowering desire is for the Pakistani politicians to realize the threat jointly posed to them by those who must paint all of them ugly – turn by turn or in one single sweep.

Whatever be our fate, the famous Golden Mile stretch of The Mall can never be faulted for throwing up all that needs to be fixed. The favourite venue for dharnas and agitation lived up its reputation by offering both usual and off-beat but equally explosive instances requiring everybody’s response for resolution over the last few days. Apart from Qasim Shah’s ascent at Alhamra, visiting Indian poet Javed Akhtar, an apparent favourite of those with licence to publicly celebrate Faiz in Lahore, managed to offend Pakistanis with his remarks about the host country. ‘Naturally’ this caused an outrage and Javed Sahab was called all kinds of names and projected as someone unworthy to sit up there and pontificate.

That perhaps is a debate best left for the learned and the less-occupied of this world – as to what quality of poet qualifies to say what about whom. You can attack Javed Akhtar for as long and as viciously as you want. You may raise the plight of the otherwise fading-from-mind Kashmiris and refer to Bollywood where poor old Shahrukh Khan must take pains to explain to his critics that the Pathan is actually not your usual everyday handsome soul from the northwest but a survivor with unknown parents and faith abandoned (where else?) but a cinema hall. You may do all these things and protest, so long as upon your return from such patriotic conquests, you are also ready to introspect and discuss your own faults and follies. This change is as urgently needed as any other.

The writer is a senior journalist.