Sunday, October 19, 2008

So What's Mush up to?

When politicians get defeated in elections and have to leave office, they still manage to command some column inches in newspapers and some face time on tv, so that people know that a comeback bid is in the works.
But it’s different for ousted military rulers like Parvez Musharraf. It’s strange to think that it’s been exactly two months (and one day) since the former Pakistan president quit office to avoid impeachment. After one or two days of where he might go and what he would do, he disappeared almost entirely from TV and newspapers after dominating them for eight whole years. Pouf! Just like that.
For sure, his name does get invoked a hundred times a day by media, politicians and political pundits, mostly to roundly condemn all his policies. We have also been told he’s spending his time playing golf and bridge with friends. He’s also said to have hosted a dinner for some retiring army buddies at his Army House residence in Pindi. We know he went to Karachi for a few days to be with his daughter. We also know he arrived in Lahore on October 18 and disappeared towards some “secret” destination.
But he’s himself been completely invisible, offering no pearls of wisdom on what’s going on the country
(and plenty is), as if he had all along been just some Parvez on the street with no interest in anything but getting along with his life. Not one interview, not one press conference. That may well have been the condition of his being allowed to remain in the country – that’s another big mystery. Just what exactly was that deal? Everyone knows in their bones that the Pak Army stepped in to protect him from being exiled or prosecuted but there’s nothing more about this.
But in the last two or three days, there have been some teeny-weeny reports, quoting anonymous sources, about his intention of making a “political comeback’ once he moves into his house in Chak Shehzad, the equivalent of Delhi’s Sainik Farm ( btw Chak Shezad is all legal, the similarity is in the population profile -- rich) on the outskirts of Isloo. Apparently, that little piece of architectural candy with slopey green tiled roofs set in four acres is going to become a “hub” of political activities for all those disgruntled with the current dispensation.
I find it hard to believe that Mush is really going to move into that under-construction farmhouse when it’s ready in a couple of months. It’s zero from the security point of view, unless the government barricades the entire area. All those rich neighbours of his must be nervous already about what’s coming to them.
If he does move in and starts holding a political darbar there everyday, what chances of his comeback? In my humble view, Pakistan is nor ready yet for Musharraf Mark II. In the last one year or so, he’s been hated at different time for different reasons. Right now, it’s for dragging the country into the US war in Afghanistan (as if there was a choice!) and almost equally, for bad economic policies that are now threatening to bankrupt and ruin the country so badly that the government has had to get out there with a begging bowl.
But let’s not foreclose any possibilities here…

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Moon Politics

Eid Mubarak everyone. It is customary at the end of the Ramadan month to participate in the the great suspense thriller called Sighting of the Moon. In Pakistan, this heavy burden lies on the shoulders of a bunch of wise men called the Ruet-e-Hilal committee.

They haul up a telescope to the highest building -- in Slammers it is the Saudi-Pak tower -- and everyone waits for them to tell it like it is. The ReH has branches in main cities and further down in the structure, zonal and district committies.
On Sept 30, the wise men, whose GHQ is Karachi, decided to keep the nation in suspense until about 11 pm. The moon was reported elusive in Islamabad and many other cities and Khi said it would announce the final decision after poring over more results. As the clock ticked, Pakistanis reconciled themselves to one more day of fasting, said their tarawiyan -- special prayers during Ramadan -- and were almost preparing to hit the sack when...
Past 10 pm, the NWFP government announced the moon had been definitively sighted in Pesh, and other places in the province, so as far as it was concerned, Eid was on October 1.
An hour later, the wise men in Khi, who had been holding out until the last minute, threw in the towel and also announced an October 1 Eid.
Now all this wouldn't be such a hassle if it were not for several things: a) people working away from their homes return on the last day of fasting so that they can spend Eid with family, but they get blindsided by a last minute announcement like last night's and b) Chand Raat (moon night, literally) is a festival by itself and it has people coming out in the droves for last minute shopping etc, and because of that it's a big thing for trade and business too. This year, Chand Raat was wrecked. Still, the 11 pm announcement sent women screaming out of their homes at that late hour to buy sweets, bangles, footwear, get their hands hennaed etc. while traders wondered how much more business they might have done if the announcement had come slightly earlier.
A friend came up with the interesting wisdom that betting syndicates must have been involved. The longer it took, the higher the odds on betting on October 1, and those who bet on this unlikely possibility, must have cleaned up massive amounts when the announcement finally came, he was certain. As for those who bet on Oct 2, LOSERS! Hmmm...
But as in Monty Python, look on the bright side of life. For the first time in many years, and at least in the two years since I've been here, all of Pakistan is celebrating Eid together on one day. Last year, I think the country had three Eids, and the year before it was two.
But everyone is quite sick and tired of this annual end-of-Ramadan moon politics, and people are asking why not do it scientifically, like the Libyans. There, Gaddhafi or someone says, ok folks, according to all the astronomical evidence we have, this is the day on which the Eid moon is due to rise, tough luck if you can't see it, but it's there somewhere. And everyone goes with this.
Or just follow the Saudis, considering that's where Mecca is. This year, the Saudis and the whole of the middle east celebrated Eid on Sept 30.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Hello Gorgeous

If there's anything that's managed to overshadow the Marriott blast, it has to be grieving widower Zardari's comment to Sarah Palin that she looked "gorgeous" and his offer to hug her if the photographers wanted that.
Read this account:

This just before he went up to the UN General Assembly, pulled out a portrait of his assassinated wife Benazir Bhutto, and devoted three-fourths of his speech to her.

Embarrassed Pakistani papers tried to play down the comment, many did not carry it and those that did, buried it. But it's doing the rounds anyway, and it's also eliciting some strong reax. Read this SMS message that went around two nights ago from Tahira Abdullah, a well-known rights activist and feminist:
"Please also raise and comment on Pres. Z'ardari's TOTALLY inappropriate & unacceptable behaviour with sarah Palin today. It is sexist, insulting, humiliating, politically incorrect, ethically and morally worng, contrary to diplomatic norms, & ABOVE ALL, an affront to BB's memory. It is a source of national embarrassment. He must apologise".
Dawn newspaper, one of the newspapers that ran the story, had an editorial this morning:

Thursday, September 25, 2008

The blast at Marriott

Everbody knows what happened at Islamabad's Marriott hotel on Saturday 20th September.

8 pm. I'd just finished writing up a report on Zardari's speech to parliament that afternoon, called my office, told them I'd sent it, and was preparing to shut down my computer in anticipation of a quiet weekend. That's the exact moment I heard it. A huge huge sound that shook my entire house in the f-8/3 sector of Islamabad. It was the loudest explosion I'd ever heard, like thunder magnified a thousand times.

(The crater caused by the blast. Dimensions: 25'ft deep and 59' across)

But my first irrational reaction in that second was --God, please let this be an earthquake. Or maybe not so irrational, because a natural disaster is not the same as a terrorist act. I mean earthquakes, tsunamis, floods happen, and they are preventable too to a certain extent, and the damage they cause can be controlled. But the are not a demonstration of the depths to which humans can sink to make a point of their hatred of other humans, governments or a system or anything else. Earthquakes are not someone's act of revenge against someone else. Well, I guess you can argue that it's earth's revenge against humans for all the stuff we do it. But still, I know you've got the point.

But of course, it was not an earthquake. It was just the biggest bomb to hit the country. I made a call to a reporter friend who told me it was at the Marriott -- it's two sectors away from where I live, which means four kms, but the explosion was so loud I was sure it had happened in the F-8 market just down the road. With a feeling of dread about the casualties, the blood and the gore, I took myself off to the spot with a friend who also wanted to go. Even from 300 mts away, the hotel still hidden from view behind a corner, we could tell this was no ordinary blast as we parked the car and walked towards it. Branches of trees were strewn all over the side road, there was building rubble, bricks and bits of glass long before we reached the main road in front of the Marriott.

There, an unforgettable sight: One end of the five-storeyed building on fire, the road itself in darkness, street lamps lying twisted on the road, some standing with only the trunks, the tops having got blown off, an entire row of cars on the opposite side of the road from the Marriott, completely wrecked and smashed and crumpled beyond recognitopon. On the road itself, a massive crater. I told my friend the last such crater I'd seen was from the LTTE's central bank bombing in Colombo, 1996. Actually, the whole scene reminded me of that incident, except the Colombo building was seven floors high, and this was one was flatter but spread out longer across.

( The fully ablaze hotel and the remains of its facade and car park)

That length was rapidly catching fire as I stood watching, as the first casualties were brought out, I couldn't even tell in the dark whether they were dead or alive. There was so much rubble on the road and the earth from the crater and huge bits of concrete chunks and twisted metal that it was one big obstacle course to get anywhere close to the hotel. I saw the first fire engine arrive five or 10 minutes after I got there and helplessly try to lay out a pipe to the fire in the corner, which was about a good 50 to 70 mts from where we were all standing.

I spoke to some hotel employees who were stumbling out, blood on their white waiter's jackets. They'd been serving at an iftaari. One said the ceiling fell in the banquet hall where he was waiting on an inftaar reception. They were all dazed, didn't know what had happened except that they'd seen a lot of people were lying on the ground, dead or injured.

Just that afternoon, I'd driven past the hotel while trying to get to the National Assembly where Zardari was to address a joint session of parliament. There was so much security on the road to the assembly that the cops refused to let us past the checkpost and diverted us to the marriott instead, and we drove past and around it. It was just so normal at that time, the usual comings and goings, the guards -- possibly the same ones who tried stopping the explosives-laden truck as it tried to enter -- at the gate, etc.

(The day after -- Pix Anees Jillani)

The fire brought up worries of people trapped in the rooms. As I picked my way up on the heaps of rubble, I thought about the possibility of people buried underneath. i thought about the sand coloured bomb-sniffing Labrador and its handler who used to stand at the gate with the guards and I wondered if they were dead or alive. But the friend with whom I went to the site said he did see the dog with a few of the guards at the gate who escaped.

(The day after -- Anees Jillani)

After about an hour of witnessing the confusion and the chaos, I came back to file my report with no confirmation about how many had died, how many were injured or even what had happened. When the deadlines were behind me, I sat back and thought about not having the reassuring sight of the Marriott itself, an oasis of cosmopolitanism (admitted, only for those with money) in the middle of Islamabad. It was an ugly building, but it had just grown on me in the two years I spent here. I thought about how the hotel maintained the central verge on the main road and how i always compared my winter flowers to theirs, always losing the competition. Just this past summer, I had asked my gardener why our zinnias looked so faded and the ones in marriott so red and big.

(The day after: Anees Jillani)

I wrote something about Marriott as a landmark for the newspaper the next day. If you want you can read it at:

I discovered later there were other international journalists who were more depressed than me about the hotel.

Here's what The Australian's Bruce Loudon wrote:

by BRUCE LOUDON, South Asia correspondent It was my home away from home – a place where I was one of the first guests to check in when it opened its doors way back in 1977, and then spent long months living there, covering the trial and execution of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto.

In the past couple of years, I’ve spent more time in Islamabad’s Marriott hotel (and in its previous incarnation as the Islamabad Holiday Inn) than I have at what is nominally my home in New Delhi, always in the same room 352, right in front of the main gate where the devastating weekend suicide bomb went off.

More than once I’d been warned that for security reasons it was the wrong place to stay. The Marriott, I was told, was a prime target for the jihadi terrorists. And insisting on staying in a room on the front of the hotel, directly across from the heavily-guarded main gate, I was warned, was the wrong place to be.

But I was deeply attached to the place. Having checked in during the first week when it opened 31 years ago, I didn’t want to stay elsewhere. My association with it went back further than that of anyone on the staff. Before I checked out the last time, just a few days ago, the management did a search.

No-one else, they concluded, had been there right at the start, as I had. Now so many of the people I have known so well are among the victims of this sickening attack – staff members and regular guests innocently torn apart, their lives destroyed in this evil outrage.

People I know well. People I would see every day, week in and week out. People who were my friends. People, some of whose numbers are in my mobile, so well did I know them, but who are now not responding as I frantically try to call to see if they are alright. People for whom I weep, for they became so much part of my life as I spent long months in Islamabad covering, most recently, the assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the country’s democratic election last February, the enforced resignation of General Musharraf, and the installation in power of president Asif Ali Zardari.

Just about all of that coverage was done from my base in room 352 – the room overlooking the main entrance which was described to me by one eyewitness last night as looking as if it had been “hit by a meteorite” such was the impact of the blast. A room that I liked because in addition to allowing me to watch who was coming in and out of the hotel (ahead of any other pub in Islamabad, the Marriott was the place where all the political intriguers and the schemers and plotters met), it also allowed me to constantly look at the beautiful, serene and peaceful Margalla Hills that provide such a glorious, verdant backdrop to Islamabad.

My room is no more, I’m told. Along with much of the rest of the hotel, it has been blown away. It’s gone. It took the full brunt of the blast from the suicide bomb blast in front of the gate. Looking at the television pictures, I see it enveloped in flames together with most of the rest of the hotel. And just as I weep for my many friends on the staff of the hotel and among the regular guests who were killed or injured, so, too, do I mourn the destruction of a room that has been so central to The Australian’s coverage of Pakistan over the past couple of years. (Pix: Cars totalled on the opposite side of the road. By Anees Jillani)

It was, in effect, our office in Islamabad; the place where we based ourselves to report the series of epic events that have unfolded in the deeply troubled nation. It was, for example, in 352 where, on a Sunday morning just before she was assassinated, Benazir Bhutto called me for what was to be our last conversation after a friendship going back 33 years – a long conversation, one I’ll never forget, one that still preys constantly on my mind.

A curious conversation between two friends that was less about politics than about BB’s feelings as she prepared to resume leadership of a nation so vital to the war on terror – one that recalled old times together before her father was hanged, the attempt to kill her in Karachi six weeks earlier, her mother’s Alzheimers, Asif Ali Zardari, her kids.

It’s eerie now: just as I frantically and unsuccessfully try to call the numbers of friends I knew who worked or stayed regularly in the Marriott, so, too, does Benazir’s private mobile number keep appearing in my mobile phone’s list of contacts. I haven’t had the heart to erase it.

I still mourn the loss of my friend to the terrorists. And so, too, my home away from home, too, is now no more. I think back to the days in 1987 when a handful of us were the first guests to stay there. Of discovering that the then military dictatorship’s intelligence agency had planted bugs in my room. Of the dramatic time when I was based in the hotel covering the trial and the eventual hanging of Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto on that awful morning in the prison in nearby Rawalpindi. Of returning to the hotel to file my account of the hanging – an event that was every bit as outrageous and evil as the massive suicide bomb attack on the Marriott, and which set in train the dreadful events that have led to the sort of Baghdad-style destruction now being seen in a country so pivotal to the war on terror. The destruction of the Marriott was Pakistan’s 9/11. The repercussions from the blast are incalculable.

More on Wagah Border

It's really good news that India and Pakistan have decided to open up the Atari-Wagah border to trade. In case you missed it, this was one of the decisions by Zardari and Manmohan Singh when they met in New York on 24th September.

Atari-Wagah is the main land crossing between the two countries ( the other one is the Munabao-Kokhrapar crossing, and trade is also going to be allowed on that one). The A-W crossing has been closed to all normal traffic of people and goods of the two countries since the 1965 war. Four decades and three years! Maybe they'll also think of opening it to people traffic one of these days.

This must be the only land crossing in the world between two countries that is closed to the two categories of people that stand to gain the maximum from it -- Indians and Pakistanis. Of all the perverse things in the world, this has to take the cake. The whole world can go through it provided they are americans, canadians, british, australian, whatever, but not indians or pakistanis -- not unless they hold passports of some other country, or they are diplomats of either country, or have SPECIAL permission. Meaning?

Meaning, a royal runaround to get that SPECIAL permission. I have experience of the Pakistani side, so let me recount that. I had to make a sudden trip to New Delhi in May, and having just returned from India the month before, I wanted to save money, plus what the hell, I wanted to experience the border crossing. For two years, I'd heard my Indian diplomat friends swap stories of how long it took them to drive from Islamabad to Amritsar, where they dump their car with a pal, board a plane or take the Shatabdi and voila, they're in Delhi by 11pm. As part of the working classes, I can't drive my car through, but I figured I could ask for permission to walk through. "On Foot" permission, it's called. Bureaucrats will think of the clunkiest ways to label things.

My chase began with writing to the Pakistan government Information Ministry's External Publicity Wing (it deals with foreign journos) asking for the permission. They would forward my letter to the Interior Ministry, who would then give me the permission, and a letter to carry with me that I would show at the border. No problem, I was assured by an official. I was lulled. I concentrated on the next task on the road to Atari, which was to get a clearance from the Min of External Affairs that I could walk through the Indian side of the border. That was not really a problem, it was granted almost immediately.

When the countdown to my departure began and with the permission from the Interior Ministry still nowhere in sight, I started panicking and started calling the Information official three times a day. Each time she said it's on its way. The day before, I asked her, are you sure it's coming? And she said yeah, yeah, sure. Hope so, I said, hanging up. That afternoon, at 4 pm, I got a call from her saying, please make some other arrangement to go or postpone your visit, because your permission has not yet arrived from Interior.

Angered almost to tears. I'm afraid I was plenty rude to her. But never get mad, work on getting the job at hand done. Which is what I set out to do next. I trained all my heavy guns on getting the permission, spoke to one minister, got a message through to three others -- like using a sledgehammer to kill a mosquito. But no assurances from anyone. I packed my bag that night, and caught a bus to Lahore the next morning, determined at least to make a scene at Wagah if nothing else. On the way, I worked the phones, and finally one official gave the good news that it was done.

Phew!!! At least 700 of the hair on my head must have greyed, and I must have gained a 100 more wrinkles on my face with the sheer effort of getting this wretched SPECIAL "on foot" permission.

Compare and contrast with what a British journalist based in New Delhi told me when I bumped into him once in Lahore. We were both in the city to cover Benazir Bhutto's house arrest in November 2007.

When did you get here, I asked him. Oh, just a few minutes ago, he said. It was early afternoon, and I said, what do you mean a few minutes ago? There are no flights at this time from Delhi.
No, no, he said, I didn't fly out. It's so easy with this Shatabdi from Delhi. I got on the train in the morning, got to Amritsar in five hours, got to Atari and crossed over. Here by lunchtime....

I was really angry when I heard how easy it was for him, and thought about how difficult it is for Pakistanis and Indians who own that border.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

The India-Pakistan Circus At Wagah

I'm starting this blog today, and no better way to inaugurate it than with the combined India-Pakistan circus called "Flag-Lowering Ceremony" at Wagah!

I read this PTI report from Atari the other day about how the guards on the Pakistan side had gone back to their aggressive postures and gestures, so the Indian side also decided, no doubt with a heavy heart, that they would also revert back to their aggressive ways.

The first time I saw this drama, way back in 2006 -- by the way, I have only ever seen it from the Pakistani side -- I came back really angry and wrote something about how horrible it was to put up something that openly encourages hostility. It was two days after the Indian side had decided that the BSF jawans would not goose-step as high as they used to. In Pakistan, they said they would not make any changes.

Going by the PTI report, it seems that both sides had modified their actions somewhat, though I never noticed any major changes in the several times I've seen it since then. But I have to say that I look at the whole show slightly differently now I'm convinced it's all a put-on tamasha, choreographed jointly by the Rangers and the BSF to the last detail. It's what they call nura kushti in Urdu -- fraud wrestling. Plus imagine, if they were to stop doing it, it would be a real dhakka to the fragile economies of Atari and Wagah. The one time I crossed into India by foot, I saw guys selling VCDs of the ceremony in Atari, just beyond the gates. A whole row of restuarants have come up to service the hundreds who come every day to watch the ceremony. There's an entire lot of taxi and bus drivers making money out of ferrying people to the thing. On the Pakistan side too, Wagah that is, I'm happy to report the taxis are doing well, so are the food and drink stalls, and it's only a matter of time before they start doing the CDs as well. The whole thing is a real picnic.

Yes, it still encourages us think we are enemies locked in mortal combat and appeals to some deep down tribal instinct, but the number of people who flock to the gates on either side and wave to each other after the circus ends, shows that lots of folks know to differentiate between real wresting and nura kushti. So let the people enjaaaai, as they say.

But if there's one real reason to stop this ceremony, it's the stress fractures that it must be causing in all those poor goose-stepping guards. I've seen it up close so I know that when a guard brings down his foot with that thundering explosive sound, you can see things rearranging themselves all the way up, on his face. I'm sure their jaws must be getting dislocated routinely. What shape their knees must be in, I hate to think. I wonder if these guys get good medical attention, especially the ortho kind. And they'll all need knee replacements soon. At least they should rotate them every six weeks. But I guess that's difficult, because these chaps are like actors doing well-rehearsed parts. There's one guy on the Pakistani side who does an imitation of an angry rooster, puffing out his chest fiercely shaking his head in a way that the fan of his black turban shakes exactly like it's in a cockfight. He's been there forever, well, at least since 2006. It's a hard act to follow, that's why he'll never be transferred out.