Lost in arson attacks

May 21, 2023

Radio Pakistan bounced back after the arson attempt but memories of violence continue to haunt the staff

Lost in arson attacks


On May 9, a throng of protestors began gathering around the historic Radio Pakistan station. The demonstrators had congregated to protest National Accountability Bureau’s arrest of former prime minister Imran Khan.

Soon, 500 to 800 people were milling around the building. There was palpable tension in the air.

Then, some members of the mob began scaling the walls of the building. Once in, the crowd set a model of the Chagai Mountains on fire. The model had been installed in remembrance of a series of nuclear tests conducted in the Ras Koh Hills in Balochistan.

By the next morning, the situation had escalated and tempers were running high. Unaware of the trouble that was brewing, radio jockey (RJ) Rahat Dildar, was preparing to go to work. “I saw the disturbing visuals on television last night,” Dildar recalls, “But I hadn’t the slightest clue what was going to happen.”

“I started my day with routine work. It was like a normal day until it wasn’t,” he told The News on Sunday. “As usual a taxi drove me to the Broadcasting House, and I marked my attendance in the duty room,” he remembers.

“I sat down and took a look at the worksheet of a show for the youth that was to go on air in a few minutes,” said Dildar, “but just as my producer and studio engineer gave me the go-ahead and the ‘on air’ button lit up, we heard loud banging on the door.”

“The commotion caught us unawares. It was very unusual and unexpected,” says Dildar, “We were quite disoriented. Thankfully, a colleague took charge. He asked us to vacate the building immediately. ‘Leave right away if you want to save your life,’ he shouted at us.”

The incident:

Radio staff said the mob was armed with pistols, knives and batons. When the first plumes of smoke rose into the sky, some of the officials were still inside the four-storey building.

Naseerullah, a radio employee with a plastered leg, tells TNS he had to leap from the second floor to find his way out of the building. “I broke my leg broke as I fell,” he says.

Abdullah, another staff member who was on duty that day, suffered burns. “My hands got singed as I sifted through a pile of files shelved in a cupboard that was on fire,” he recalls.

The arson attack reduced many offices, including those of producers, engineers and technical personnel to ashes. The duty room and control room were also damaged by the fire.

The incident was reported by domestic and international media outlets. In its aftermath, broadcasting on both local and national levels remained suspended for 26 hours.

During the rioting, the transmitter that relayed shows for FM 101 was blown off. A flying coach, five other vehicles and six motorbikes, parked on the premise were also set on fire by the protestors. According to the staff, 22 motorbikes owned by employees went missing.

In flashback:

Radio Pakistan Peshawar, is one of the oldest radio installations in the country. According to historians, during colonial times, the British government first installed a mini-size radio transmitter in the city. After the success of this project, on March 6, 1935, another radio transmitter was installed in a two-room structure inside the Civil Secretariat. It was inaugurated the same year by Governor Radcliffe, who made his inaugural speech in Pashto.

The transmitter and equipment were transferred to its new building in 1942 and remained there till 1984. On April 28, 1985, the equipment was shifted to the ill-fated broadcasting house where it has remained since then.

Khan Abdul Qayyum Khan Kashmiri, a renowned politician from the province, also played a role in bringing the radio to the province. According to historic accounts, the political leader met Marconi, the Italian inventor who invented the radio in London during the Round Table Conferences of 1930-1932.

Lost in arson attacks

During his meetings, Kashmiri requested the engineer to gift a radio transmitter to the then-NWFP. Marconi agreed, designed a transmitter himself and gifted it to the province. That transmitter was also reported damaged in the May 9 attacks.

On ground:

According to Sardar Azam, a senior producer and PRO of Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation (PBC), the damage was not limited to the building or the vehicles.

“A computer that had back-ups of thousands of recordings was also destroyed in the chaos,” says Azam. “The recordings that were lost forever included interviews of prominent personalities including historians and statesmen, Jinnah’s speeches, dramas, features and the works of folk artists,” he sayd.

“Expensive radio equipment including recording microphones, computer sets, many devices and appliances was also either destroyed or looted by the protestors,” says Azam. “It is hard to make an accurate estimate of damage,” he says.

Azam says the citizens’ response has been heartening. “They (citizens) showed up in large numbers to condole with us and express their grief,” he says.

“People from all walks of life, be they artists, folk singers, literati, scholars, political workers, civil society members or religious scholars, are in a state of shock and mourning,” says Azam.

“The atmosphere is sombre. People have felt this very deeply,” remarks Azam, “some even came to me with tears in their eyes as if a loved one had passed away.”

Public response:

“The youth, women, children, minorities, senior citizens, special persons, army men and farmers turned up in large numbers to express their solidarity with us. That helped because we (employees of Radio Pakistan) are still in a state of shock,” said Azam. “We also received a lot of support online after the incident,” he added.

“When the mob approached the Abdul Qayyum Khan Auditorium, adjacent to the main building, and set it on fire, it felt as if someone had grabbed us and torched our turbans,” Azam says, his eyes welling up, “It was a very heart-wrenching sight,” adds the producer.

Rebuilding with a vision:

Mohammad Ejaz Khan, the station director, says May 10 felt like “the end of the world.”

“The perpetrators wanted to silence the booming voice of Aftab Ahmad. ‘Ye Radio Pakistan Peshawar kee awaz hay’,” Khan says wistfully while referring to the announcement that was first made in Urdu by Aftab Ahmed and then repeated in Pashto ‘Da dah Radio Pakistan Pkhawar awaaz de,’ by Abdullah Jan Maghmoom in the early hours of August 14, 1947.

“That will never happen,” says the director resolutely, “our affinity for our national identity will only increase.” “The building will be repaired soon,” he adds.

From radio archives:

Haji Mohammad Aslam Khan, a senior radio anchor, has been working with Radio Pakistan Peshawar for over three decades. He has been involved in the archival and recordings of old voices, and reels. So far, he has collected more than 4,500 rare Pashto songs.

Aslam Khan has also written scripts and lyrics for old Pashto movies and songs. “Radio is the nursery for many artists, news, anchors, folk performers, poets and writers,” he says.

“The contribution to Radio Peshawar in promoting education, local art, and culture and social and political traditions cannot be overstated,” says Khan.

Lost in arson attacks

Living legends:

Three living Pashto legends; Zarsanga, also known as the Melody Queen; Khayyam Mohammad, also known as the King of Pashto ghazal; and Ahmad Gul Ustad, recognized as the ‘nightingale of sweet tunes,’ also launched their careers from Radio Pakistan. The artists said they were devastated when they heard the news that the building had been ransacked.

The music library is intact along with six studios, rare reels, and archives of old songs, interviews and speeches. The premises have been opened for visitors, children and young aspirants for audition tests.

FM-101 and AM transmission have started relaying news bulletins, current affairs shows and routine programmes despite the ashes and the debris.

“Despite television and social media, I still listen to radio shows,” says Zarsanga. “I, Khayal Mohammad and Ahmad Gul Ustad will sing in the Sir Abdul Qayyum Khan Auditorium on live transmission,” says the performer.

The writer is a Peshawar-based journalist. He mostly writes on art, culture, education, youth and minorities. He tweets @Shinwar-9

Lost in arson attacks