Pakistan turns into Toba Tek Singh

By Q. Isa Daudpota

PAKISTAN is like an airplane lost in a dark ominous cloud, running on autopilot. Its coordinates and destination were set by the previous crew members who have been forced to eject or have parachuted out.

Passengers with gurgling stomachs and sweaty brows appear paralysed by the mayhem. They have seen a stream of crew members — mostly shady hunks in khakis with the occasional trustworthy face — pushed off the plane or bail out with a parachute. The captain, Asif Zardari, took over when his wife was forced off the aircraft. The first officer, Nawaz Sharif, is still hanging on propped up by his benefactor Gen Ziaul Haq. CIA operatives on board, as passengers learnt later, had forced Zia to jump off with a crate of mangoes tied to him.

Every so often passengers are shown glimpses of the two self-assured, grinning pilots to reassure them that the plane is out of harm’s way. A sharp journalist on flight notes the lack of sparkle and empathy in their eyes and wonders if their bright smiles are a sham.

Air traffic control is in the hands of Gen Pervez Musharraf supported by American engineers. They built the autopilot and are the only people with the flight plan. Suddenly, a violent pounding on the door disturbs the peace inside the locked control room. Outside, the deposed Chief Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry and Aitzaz Ahsan having caught wind of the plot are trying to force their way in.

Meanwhile absolute pandemonium reigns in the cabin. To avoid further ruckus, the cool-headed flight purser Saadat Hasan Manto puts on the film ‘Toba Tek Singh’, a classic drama about the confusion at the time of Partition when Hindu lunatics in a city in Punjab were repatriated to India. Suddenly there is absolute quiet as passengers fix their eyes on the monitor before them. This is similar to the reassurance of seeing oneself in the mirror every morning. ‘That’s me, that face is mine, I have survived the night!’ you tell yourself. And the few who were lost in the plot finally begin to take in the manner in which the story mirrors their own situation.

The rest of the world retains an interest in the future of this unstable flight — an unfolding drama which is as surreal when viewed from down below as it is onboard. Some characters in the drama are highlighted by the international press. The New York Times’ Sunday magazine elaborates on the life and times of Aitzaz Ahsan. He also makes it to the Prospect magazine’s list of the top100 global intellectuals. In The New York Times, Ahsan talks about himself being the virtual deputy prime minister in Benazir Bhutto’s cabinet after Ziaul Haq was killed in 1988. Inexperience and other flaws of Bhutto mixed with serious interference by the army prevented significant headway.

The president fired the government in 1990 and Nawaz Sharif stepped in and got the courts to try Bhutto and her husband, Zardari. They were defended in court by Ahsan, who now expresses disdain for Benazir and has little doubt about the corruption of the couple which, he said, was evident by their lifestyle and expenditures. He nonetheless remains a member of the party, which is clearly non-democratic within its ranks. Interestingly, no one knows how he balances his alliances.

Justice Iftikhar, who originally approved of Gen Musharraf’s takeover in 1999, has redeemed himself through his activist role in highlighting the cause of countless Pakistanis who disappeared because of the ‘war on terror’. This exposure has earned him the ire of the Americans. He also exposed and thus thwarted the deal to sell the national steel mill to a crony of the Citibanker-turned-prime minister, Shaukat Aziz, who is now safe in America after his five-year stint in a foreign land. The chief justice also helped to stop the New Murree project which would have replaced a pristine pine forest in the hills with luxury hotels and villas for the filthy rich.

Meanwhile as the airborne drama of Pakistan unfolds, the common citizen is burdened with sky-rocketing prices of food and other commodities, as well as a serious shortage of power coupled with severe eco-disasters. And the brutal wheel of poverty spins some more. Take the Afghan refugee on his nightly route, or the scavenger who gathers discarded plastic bottles from various garbage dumps. He earns a sorry Rs60 to Rs100 daily, a sum far below the requirements of basic survival.

The plane can only fly safely if Pakistanis wake up to the reality of their situation and begin to change things for the better. Good sense, courage and political will are levers that will cancel the autopilot and ensure that the plane is in safe hands for evermore.

The writer is an Islamabad-based physicist.

Daily Dawn, 6/7/2008

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