Of rubber-stamp meetings

July 12, 2020

Dr Ajaz Anwar recounts the agenda of the Lahore Conservation Society (LCS), as manifested in the recent meetings of its founding members

— Image: Supplied

Though the Neela Gumbad Market has been known for the earliest of rubber stamp makers in Lahore, there is a new species of the complaisant, happy to be invited into the corridors of power. Every now and then, a haphazard meeting is convened with a newly edited list of invitees, with an agenda dropped at the residences of potential yes-persons only a day before. With not much time allowed to discuss the agenda, the participants are screened by a suspicious-looking man in civvies holding a paper scribbled with their names in cuneiform.

The Lahore Conservation Society (LCS) founding members had always preferred not to accept invitations that required ‘rubber stamping’ the bureaucratic agenda. Whenever they did accept an invitation, the executive members took a unified, strong stance, under Khwaja Zaheeruddin. The history made by LCS shall be discussed in a later dispatch.

One such meeting was convened on June 22, when most of Lahore was under lockdown. Imrana Tiwana and Dr Neelam Naz ZOOMed in, while the others braved the sweltering heat with masks on. Those attending the meeting, held at the Darbar Hall, were not all darbarees, as was evident from their responses. The meeting began without a formal introduction of the members, though their names had been displayed in front of the chairs laid out at fair distances, and microphones allocated.

The meeting started well in time and the agenda was followed and discussed in a brainstorming session. The extensions proposed for Data Darbar were duly approved by some with more conservative mindset. This scribe would like the money to be put to better use than into promoting the menace of pigeons that are in fact rats with wings.

The Data Complex had taken a huge toll during the early Zia days. A prestigious school with distinguished citizens on its roll of honour, was pulled down overnight and the adjoining mosque, gifted by Ghulam Rasool, which had five domes, a feature that appears in only two other mosques in Lahore, namely the Marium Zamani and Wazir Khan, too was mercilessly razed to the ground. For the record, the proposal was shot down.

Next item on the block was the wall of the Governor’s House, which not many knew was built in re-employed Moghul and Nanak Shahi bricks with relieving arches along the Kashmir Road, as was revealed in the early 1980s when its plaster covering was removed. The proposal to turn the monument, protected under the Punjab Special Premises (Preservation) Ordinance, 1985, into an income generating venue for photo-ops and valima feasts, with limited activity against hefty charges, was discussed. The gathering was reminded that a similar function had been held at the Lahore Fort recently and there were loud protests by the civil society, as a result of which some junior staff of the Walled City was made scapegoats.

In this case, there might emerge a very big Bakkar Mandi, because of the frequent violations. It might be recollected that Prof Dr Mahmud Hussain, the former chairman of Architecture Department at the UET, had vehemently opposed the handing over of the Fort to the Walled City of Lahore Authority (WCLA), as recorded in the minutes of a meeting. Hence, the professor was never invited to subsequent meetings.

If at all the Governor’s House is to be opened to the public, it could be made part of the Lawrence Gardens and provided an underpass for The Mall, suggested this scribe in a lighter vein.

A few years back, a similar situation had arisen when they wanted to allow the protected Lakshmi Building to be pulled down so that the private applicant could build a high-rise hotel. This was vehemently opposed by many attending the meeting, including this scribe, yet as a compromise the façade of the historic building was retained and the edifice pulled down post-haste. Its Burma teak stairs were mercilessly torn apart and the halls once occupied by the All India Muslim League were pulled down. With it was gone the history of the Pakistan Movement workers.

The hotel could never be built because the applicant never owned the building, as was revealed by Chaudhry Riaz, producer of box office-hit feature, Sultana Daku. His office was located there. Thus no bank loans could be obtained for the said project. The dissenting voices were never recorded in the minutes. It was a repeat run of the old story.

Since the compilers of the agenda knew that the State Guest House was also on the protected list, it was sought that on its green belt, 200 feet away, as ‘allowed’ by the Special Premises Act, a hotel be built by a private party on a 25-year lease. Elaborate working drawings for a high rise were shown to justify the feasibility. But in view of its protected status and the disaster it might cause along the canal that enjoys Heritage Park status, the project was strongly opposed by most invitees including this scribe.

It is hard to understand the logic behind this proposal which again is not likely to bring in any economic benefits. There was a big sigh of relief as the presiding chief secretary did not pursue it any further. However, he left the Darbar Hall from the back door, without waiting for a ‘vote of thanks’ and, of course, without thanking those who had braved the sweltering heat on that locked down day.

Nor was ‘any other matter with permission of the chair’ invited. Had that been the case I would certainly have invited attention to the protected Ghulam Rasool Building on The Mall, which is Vaqf-alal-Aulaad, and is being pulled down by bits. During the last monsoon, lightning chose to bring down its landmark dome. Some of the civil society members had approached the powers that be, directly, and got the assurance that the dome would be restored. No step has been taken to date and the monsoon clouds are again hovering over it.

It would have been more appropriate if the members of the LCS had been taken into confidence. Earlier, the Ferozsons bookshop in the same building had caught fire which mysteriously erupted again within a couple of days. Now the roofs of it are being used to be part of the tree plantation drive. A big banner has been hoisted over its demolished part: jagaa dastyaab hai, meaning, space is available.

Who is behind all this is anybody’s guess.

Post-script/Stop Press: In a WhatsApp message, this scribe and others who had attended the meeting at Darbar Hall, were all of a sudden invited to the State Guest House, on July 9, to visit the site which the members had visited too. This time around, the Foreign Office was the host. There was nothing new to discuss. Tiwana, via ZOOM, reiterated her earlier stance that if at all a five-star hotel were to be built there, the structure, which is imposing and graceful, could be converted into a luxurious hotel amid tall, age-old trees.

A tour of the original stately buildings along with the large halls which could also serve as boardrooms and conference venues, the likes of which are not to be found in any of the upscale hotels in the country, made it abundantly clear that the State Guest House should not be disturbed and should be left in its original shape.

The writer is a painter, a founding member of Lahore Conservation Society and Punjab Artists Association, and a former director of NCA Art Gallery. He can be reached at [email protected]

(This dispatch is  dedicated to  Khawaja Zaheeruddin,the founder of LCS)

Of rubber-stamp meetings