27 December 2011

Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007)

I wrote this piece immediately after BB's assassination.  Lahore, like other cities, was paralysed with strikes and riots.  A three-day mourning period meant that everything was shut.  My column was about cities and the environment, but I wanted to pay tribute.  This piece was published in The News.

Benazir Bhutto (1953-2007)

Before Partition, political dissent often manifested itself in violence towards traffic lights.  Apparently, during the halcyon days of the Pakistan Movement, it was considered routine to attack and destroy traffic signals at the slightest provocation.  These British introductions represented, it seems, enough of the Colonial establishment to justify, in the eyes of passionate “freedom fighters,” such vandalism.  Sadly, not even Partition has spared the fate of the innocent traffic light; they have remained a constant target and victim whenever the public turns unruly, much to the chagrin of better minded people.  In today’s day and age, when Pakistan is supposed to be run by Pakistanis and in the interest of Pakistanis, it’s considered bad form to take on a defenseless traffic device. 

On Friday, before prayers, my wife and I decided to venture onto the streets of Lahore anxious to see for ourselves the truth of the television and numerous text message reports of violence throughout this and other places in the country.  It was midmorning and the city streets were empty.  In the evening before, the President had announced a three day period of grief. 

Lahore was beautiful and unaccompanied by the everyday noise, traffic, dust and that general sense of congestion that makes it less and less attractive.  Every undulation of the Mall was uninterrupted and shafts of midmorning light pierced through the fresh tree line.  The fact it took something so gruesome to bring us a glimpse of its features weighed heavily on the both of us.

In Gulberg, the ubiquitous green PML-Q bicycle banners, so amusingly defaced on the Canal when they were put up, had now been violently torn down.  The path was clear.  This evidence of protest began at the bottom of Guru Mangat road and made its way to Liberty Market.  There, of the four large posters (depicting the Gulberg Town Nazim, the City Nazim, the Chief Minister and his son, Moonis Elahi, who is contesting for a provincial seat from the area), celebrating the recent redevelopment of the area only two bore marks of violence: those of the former Chief Minister and his Prince Ascending.  Clear evidence that they were systematically targeted.

The location of burnt tire marks was very instructive.  They delineated the political allegiance of each area.  On the Shalimar Link road, towards the Shalimar Gardens, every 500 or so meters lay shattered glass and the charred remains of burnt rubber: evidence of the anger of the mob.  The air was tense.  As if something was happening.  Every dozen or so meters small groups of men huddled at the mouths of the alleys and lanes that feed into that artery.  From the majority of the election banners, one could tell this was a PPP area; the men on the streets residents eager to share gossip from the night before.

Near the UET those green PML-Q bicycles banners stood untouched on street lights.  Clearly visible amid the desolation – we may have been the only car on that road at the time – they bisected the Grand Trunk Road like a row of artificial green attempting, tragically, to take the place of a tree-lined median.  On top of a nearby building, a 30x60 hoarding proudly displayed the credentials of that area’s candidate.  Yet there was no one on the road to see it.  The seat, it was clear, belonged to the former dispensation.

There were also signs of violence along the Shalimar Road and at Laxmi Chowk.  But by far the largest protest demonstration must have occurred in front of the Lahore Press Club.  There, shattered glass lay in mounds and the mouth of Durand road lay covered in the debris of burnt rubber and nearby PML-Q hoardings.  From the vandalized posters around the area, angry crowds must have seeped to Simlar Pahari, collected in large numbers there and then marched up Davis Road, past the PML House, and onto the Mall.  The fact that nothing further than that point appeared to have been vandalized tells us about the state of the crowd.  By this time, their spontaneous anger, shock and frustration would have given way to grief and sadness.  This would have deadened their vigour.   

At the Governor’s House, near Naqi Market and Hall road large number of police and Rangers milled about.  Some were taking in the morning tabloids, all of which carried front page photos of the carnage of the night before.  Driving past, it seemed that they were holding up Benazir placards.  More bored police, some faces lost on the yet unopened front page, sat about in the Cantonment and all those other high-end, and, therefore, “high risk” residential areas.  There were no signs of violence there.  In Defence, one could physically take in the fact that the area has the highest density of automobile ownership in the city:  Because this wasn’t a typical day off, because there was no visiting or working to be done, every driveway was full.  Each family safely huddled together.

I remember witnessing Benazir’s return to Pakistan.  She landed in this then sleepy metropolis on April 1986.   The crowds that greeted her were unprecedented.  It took her all day to get from the airport, past our residence on the Mall and on towards Minto Park.  The fact that she – at that time relatively politically inexperienced – got the reaction she did, and that too in capital of the civil and military establishment must have shaken General Zia.  Lahoris can spot political potential from miles.  Even the significance of Chief Justice Chaudhry’s reception in this city over two decades later in May of this year was measured against Benazir’s welcome.  If only one could have read the features of Lahore’s face that morning.  I’m sure its message would be equally profound for our recently retired General.  This happened on his watch, and try as he may, he won’t be able to spurn this legacy.

On 14 February 2006 lunatic extremists took vandalism to new heights by ambushing an otherwise peaceful protest against those silly cartoons.  The resulting looting, vandalism and arson spree stretched from the Metropolitan Bank on Kashmir Road all the way to the motorbikes parked at Bank Square.  The mob – boys in their teens interspersed with the odd extremist – also took on street lights.  All the lights on the signals on that area of the Mall were ruthlessly attacked.  But, as I said, Lahore can spot political talent from miles.  It saw no reason to condone the protest.  On Friday, I didn’t spot a single broken traffic light.