By MANSOOR ALAM
Islamabad, the beautiful capital of Pakistan, is becoming stranger and stranger. First, the diplomatic enclave was barricaded and put out of bound for the common Pakistanis. Until then he needed a visa to enter a foreign country now he needs a permit (visa) to enter the diplomatic enclave. Under international law the premises of diplomatic missions are regarded as the territory of those states but not the streets on which they are located.
In Islamabad the streets of the diplomatic enclave too have become the territory of foreign embassies. Pakistanis have thus lost one of their fundamental rights; freedom of movement. But who cares in a country whose constitution itself is treated by the guardians of its territorial integrity as no more than a piece of paper.
On a recent visit to Islamabad I noticed another strange phenomena, barbed wires and barricades deployed on the Constitution and Jinnah avenues, around the buildings which are supposed to be the pillars of state; the parliament house, the presidency, the supreme court of Pakistan, the prime minister’s office and house and the cabinet secretariat. No one can now approach these buildings freely. The public transports are diverted to roads far from these buildings and the few who have no choice need to get the permission of the policemen posted on these barricades and explain their purpose before they are allowed to slowly wind their way through the narrow openings of steel and cement barriers.
During the last 40 years I have lived and travelled to more than 50 capitals and other cities of the world including places like Myanmar, Egypt, Nicaragua and El-Salvador and many others, which are still or have been military and semi-military dictatorships and where civil unrest’s too have erupted from time to time, but never have I seen such barricades besieging the state buildings on the main thoroughfares.
The Islamabad barricades remind me of “Charlie Check Point” on the Berlin Wall which I crossed in 1973 on a visit from East Berlin to West Berlin. The barriers on Charlie Check Point were also similar in shape and size, two mater long and one meter high, made of steel and cement, placed in the middle of the road in a zigzag manner so that no vehicle could zoom pass the gourds. Hence all vehicles were forced to drive slowly and carefully negotiate the sharp curves to avoid a collision and a possible burst of fire from the agents of the East German secret police, the Stasi.
The Stasi had, however, erected these barricades to prevent the East Germans from escaping into West Berlin in search of freedom, liberty and a better life. All such escapes were a source of great embarrassment and were even regarded as a manifestation of the failure of communism itself. Therefore, the East Germans had to be prevented from escaping at all cost. But Islamabad is not East Berlin and Pakistanis are not trying to escape from it. Why then the barricades on the Constitution and Jinnah avenues and why have them when no demonstrations and rallies are taking place? But who can help overcome the fear of a paranoid ruler whose mind gets blocked after he has committed a gross violation of laws. Lady Macbeth could not wash the blood from her hands because it was not on her hands but in her mind.
Pakistanis have become used to all kinds of unusual events and hardships caused by the military rulers during their long rules. They suffered sever beatings and tortures in the notorious cell of the Lahore Fort during Ayub’s rule. They suffered similar torture and even more in East Pakistan in 1971 under Yahya. They were lashed, jailed and hanged during Zia’s eleven long years. But these atrocities were directed mainly against the opponents of these regimes while the common man was spared.
But the present situation in Islamabad is causing hardship and inconvenience to the common man who has to wait for a long time in sizzling heat, bitter cold or heavy rains for the public transport that takes much longer to reach the stops while negotiating through the narrow curves in slow speed. These barricades, however, do not hinder the powerful who is driven at high speed in an air conditioned Merc, escorted by a dozen security vehicles, the traffic and the traffic lights stopped to facilitate the VVIP movements. The criminals too are not affected by these barricades as the increasing crime rates in Islamabad indicate.
The barbed wires and barricades which are blocking access to the seats of government in Islamabad are also aggravating the already negative image of Pakistan. Members of the diplomatic corps and foreigners visiting Islamabad see them and are easily convinced that Pakistan is not a safe place to visit, work or invest. Their impression of Pakistan as a “failing state” is reconfirmed.
The results of the national elections had kindled a ray of hope that we may be about to enter an era of democracy, peace, stability and good governance. But the fissure that has appeared in the coalition on the issue of the Murree Accord and the failure of the PPP government to provide any kind of relief to the masses on soaring prices and shortages of roti, kapra makan aur bijlee are driving the people to acts of desperation like the recent burning alive of 5 robbers.
In these circumstances keeping the barricades and barbed wires on the Constitution and Jinnah avenues only adds fuel to the fire of discontent. They are unnecessary, senseless and an insult to the memory of Quaid-i-Azam.
While people can be patient with this government for a little bit longer about the stinking mess left behind by the previous government, led by the “longest serving”, but utterly subservient PM to his boss, the inventor of “moderate enlightenment”, they cannot bear the hardships for much longer. They are beginning to feel irritated by the helplessness of a government which cannot even remove the barricades that are a symbol of dictatorship and not democracy.
The people of Pakistan are fast reaching that state of mind which Mirza Ghalib described in these beautiful words:
Zara dam leney dey ai na-umeedi kia Qiaamat hai, / Kay damaan-e-khial-e-yaar choota jai hai mujhsay.
But who knows, there might be a blessing in disguise for the desperately hopeless people of Pakistan in all the confusion that is being added by the PPP co-chairman to the crises created by the eight long years of dictatorship which is still ruling the roost.
The writer is a former ambassador
Source: The Nation, 22/5/2008