Cultivate a better variety of politics

Islamabad diary : All those years ago

– Ayaz Amir

I resigned from the Foreign Service — for which I had little aptitude to begin with — on April 15, 1977, when the rightwing movement against Mr Bhutto was at its height. In my two-para letter to my ambassador I said Bhutto’s policies were leading to the imposition of martial law.

I had scored a point, or so I thought, but I hadn’t closely considered that I would also be out of a job. For a year and more I floundered about in Chakwal — my destination of retreat when expiating for follies, alas, all too numerous over the years — before I came across an ad for a newspaper soon to be coming out from Islamabad.

Making my way to its first floor office on the corner of Aabpara — not far from where the guardians of our ideological frontiers sit in state — I discovered the managing editor in the centre of the newsroom, hands on hips and feet apart, surrounded by a circle of worshipping acolytes.

This was Jahangir A Khan, a former bureaucrat and, as I was later to learn, the hero in that Noor Jehan film, Chanway. The famous song, O mundia Sialkotia, is sung to Jahangir Khan. While quite a flamboyant character, and handsome too, acting was not Khan Sahib’s forte. But he must have enjoyed it while it lasted.

Did he make it into Madam’s charmed circle? Asked once by the late Khalid Hasan as to the number of her love affairs, Madam, as Khalid was to recount later, started counting and then with a look of feigned shock on her face, delivered herself of the following, “Hai, hai, na na karde bhi solan (16) ho gai ne” (even though I am counting reluctantly the number still comes to 16). Whether he gained admittance into that circle of the elect I will have to ask Khan Sahib one day.

But I forget myself. Surrounded as he was by his spear-carriers I went up to him and, asking whether I could have a word, said that I had been in the army and the foreign service and could I have a job with his paper. Turning his head in my direction, but not his body, and taking me in with his eyes, he said simply, “Taken”. That was my entry into journalism.

Jahangir A Khan didn’t last long. The paper, which was The Muslim, owned by that other flamboyant character and the greatest master of conspiracy theories this side of Suez, Agha Murtaza Pooya, had yet to appear but a sister publication, an Urdu weekly, carried an article about Gen Zia which upset the ministry of information very much. Some head had to roll and it was, sadly, Khan Sahib’s.

The person who succeeded him was veteran newspaperman A T Chaudri, who carried a look of authority on his face. He had been a union activist in the Pakistan Times which perhaps explains why he had such a flair for intrigue. He knew how to handle people.

Mr Chaudri had a colourful way of writing. Power for him was never just power it was always, invariably, ‘the gilded pagodas of power’. Uppity or ambitious politicians were always ‘self-styled Athenians’. Corruption was always ‘the hydra-headed monster of corruption’. Gen Zia addressed the UN General Assembly as a representative of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (a tongue-twister, this) and Chaudri, who was accompanying Zia, wrote on his return that Zia had proved that he was now the leader of the proletariat of the Muslim world. To Chaudri’s credit, when he was needled a bit on this score, he looked embarrassed.

It was in The Muslim that I met Zafar Iqbal Mirza (ZIM to all his friends) who had been with the Pakistan Times and had been persuaded to come over to Islamabad by Chaudri. ZIM was a study in contrasts. Most mornings he was grim and tended to be short and snappy in conversation. As evening fell, and the instruments of a lively evening were brought forth, he would be the life and soul of the party. This person who was such a live wire is now bed-ridden because of a back problem. Such are the ways of the gods.

We assistant editors occupied a corner of the first floor with a good view of the Aabpara road. Next to me sat Professor Eric Cyprian, who was a bit of a legend in Lahore’s leftist circles. He had taught at the Islamia College and had been associated with the Communist Party of Pakistan. Someone more unworldly — indifferent to wealth and pretension — would be hard to imagine. If there was a passion he had it was Revolution — with a capital R. The hint of an agitation against the Zia regime would draw from him the comment, “It seems things have started happening.” Although he was in his mid-seventies he was an incurable romantic. Cynicism, that vice of the Pakistani chattering classes, never touched him.

Among the morning sub-editors there was Reeta Nasreen, who wore a sari like no one else, a perfect emblem of the Mae West line, “The curve is mightier than the sword.” (I came upon this line through someone else but that’s another story.)

The censorship of the Zia era was dreadful. At its height, and this was when things were really bad, pages had to go to the censor’s and if there was anything the least objectionable — and their interpretation of good and bad was pretty much their own — out it had to go. Newspapers as a result, and there weren’t very many, could be very dull.

Yet, remarkably, the flame of excitement was kept alive by such periodicals as the one edited by Razia Bhatti (gathered much too early to the everlasting shades). All the girls (and they were mostly girls) who worked with her were very bright (let no names be named). They also attested to the eternal and unswerving verity of Mae West’s philosophy about curves and swords.

For the idler or the temperamentally indolent there is no profession like journalism. Once upon a time it fed the ego more than it did anyone’s pocket. But times have changed and the media revolution witnessed in Pakistan has brought substantial rewards to those in the forefront of the profession. Television may not have helped raise news standards very much but it has been a great raiser of media incomes. And since it was Musharraf who helped bring this about — although it is hardly fashionable or politically correct to say a nice word about him these days — among all the opprobrium his name excites, he deserves some homage, even if carefully hidden, on the part of the leading lights of Pakistan’s television age.

When Jahangir Khan opened the doors of journalism for me it was 1978, which makes it — awful thought — 32 years ago. That’s how long I have been in this profession, without which I wouldn’t have known what to do with my life. And if there’s one thing I have seen in all this time it is the advent of false dawns, promising the brightness of the sun but turning soon to storm and tragedy.

Zia promised Islam and gave the nation hypocrisy and the wages of medievalism. Benazir Bhutto held out the promise of hope and national redemption but ended up being associated with high-flying corruption. Nawaz Sharif had the power to do much good when he was elected with a ‘heavy mandate’ in 1997 but his term ended in tears and another military dictatorship. The 2008 elections promised change and a fresh start but the performance of the national leadership, such as we have, has been less than sterling.

Now we are witnessing another false dawn in the sense that a section of the middle class is expecting the judiciary to be the herald of change. This is a wrong expectation. If politics is not delivering, it is the face of politics which needs to be changed. If politicians are not delivering, their ranks must be reshuffled through the better use of the power of the vote. If politics lacks imagination and poetry, these qualities must be worked into its fabric. Which makes it incumbent upon us to cultivate a better variety of politics in our garden because it is politics which will always be the primary agent of change.


Friday, May 28, 2010


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