Monday, August 11, 2008

Pervez Musharraf and That Evening in Lahore

I know you are curious and thinking really hard.And though there is no direct link between the now impeachment facing Pakistani dictator and that lovely Lahore evening exactly a year and half ago, there is a powerful connection.Let me elaborate the story for you.

All journalists, who have visited Pakistan at some point in their careers, Indians in particular, get a taste of the ways and whims of the Pakistani army, and its notorious and all pervasive intelligence wing, the ISI . And we were no exceptions ! The year was 2007, and the month, January. Pervez Musharraf was very much in command and completely at the helm of affairs in Pakistan. After all, it was the eighth consecutive year of his largely unchallenged and completely dictatorial Presidency and he was still months away from the landmark lawyers' agitation, which ultimately led to his downfall and the rise of new political equations in Pakistan. The uniform and the Pakistani army's unwavering loyalty were strongly and resolutely behind him .No word of criticism against the former General was entertained and talking against him in public was
still a fearful prospect.

I was part of a group of journalists who went to Islamabad to cover a crucial round of talks between the two countries.After the summit, while everyone else prepared to get back home, me and my cameraperson, who,incidentally, also happened to be a woman, decided to extend our visit by a day and visit Lahore. I had an interesting story in mind and also some friends in the city to meet. Just before leaving leaving for Lahore, we also made a visit to the Pakistan Army Headquarters in Rawalpindi to get an interview with Musharraf fixed.Musharraf was out of town and since we just had a day in hand, the plan could not materialise. Nevertheless, we packed our bags and hired a taxi to Lahore.It was early evening and the drive to Lahore via the Islamabad-Lahore expressway was 5-6 hours,we were told.The driver seemed to be a decent guy who spoke less but sensing that we were Indians, played latest Hindi movie songs on the car stereo.

It was a comfortable drive and as the cold winter breeze shivered me, I wondered whether this was the same country that I had made three previous trips to, during each of which, I felt heavily restricted as far as intercity travel ,or, movement within a particular city was concerned. Could this be because of the improved dialogue and the resulting bonhomie between the two countries ? Had the trust between the two finally begun to register itself ? I wondered.

Late in the night, we reached Lahore, checked into a guest house, without any obstruction and my sense of surprise rose again. A friend in Lahore, working for a prominent Pakistani TV Channel took us out for dinner to a swanky restaurant, which we were told was a brothel before partition! The restaurant,called Cuckoo's Den presented a spectacular view of the historic city of Lahore and the beautifully illuminated Badshahi mosque from its terrace.We chatted over several servings of Paranthas and large helpings of delicious Punjabi Saag and for a moment, I completely forgot that I was sitting in Lahore, several miles away from home, in a hostile neighbouring country.It all seemed perfectly normal, with no one apparently snooping on us or stalking us.

We had a flight in the afternoon the next day and so we decided to shoot an exclusive interview with Begum Nawazish Ali, aka Ali Saleem, Pakistan's hugely popular cross dressing TV host, early next morning.We chose to conduct the interview in a park in the centre of the city.We went strolling into the park, without anyone stopping us or asking our whereabouts.And I wondered a hundredth time!! But,hold! There was action in the offing.

As soon as I started my walking interview with Ali Saleem, I noticed first signs of intrusion. A tall, thin bearded man in plain clothes appeared suddenly from nowhere and started following us around the park.Now Ali Saleem, or, Begum Nawazish is known for his Musharraf bashing and every now and then, he would mouth something or the other against the General. This made our dear man with beard inch further closer to us. And soon a cat and mouse sort of race ensued between the four of us inside the park. It was funny in a way, but quite worrying too. Exasperated and deeply troubled, we wound up the interview fast and left the park. As we waited outside the park for our journalist friend , Rashid (name changed) to pick us up , our stalker kept hovering around.

Rashid's car was a huge sight of relief for us. We immediately got into his car and told him the entire story.The stalker was still around, closely following Rashid's car. Rashid drove us straight to his TV office and in between calls from somewhere, made us sit in his cabin. We still had about three hours for our flight and wanted to catch up with a bit of shopping.Rashid had earlier promised us that he would take us to the concerned stores, but strangely, now he asked us to make a list of stuff and deputed his help to get things for us. He looked very tense, and to hide his nervousness, babbled nonstop. It was crazy, funny and bizarre, all at the same time. He wouldn't just let us budge from our seats in his cabin and as the time for our flight drew close, arranged for us to be dropped at the airport. And yes, our stalker followed us still and saw to it that we got straight into the airport and went nowhere else. Back home, I got no message from Rashid for several months, who still seemed to be reeling under the fear of being too friendly with an Indian journalist.Later, we got to know that we were being chased right from the time we stepped out of Army Headquarters in Rawalpindi! Such was the terror of Pervez Musharraf and the Pakistani Army!

Today, as Musharraf faces the Nawaz Sharief-Zardari sponsored impeachment motion on charges of undermining democracy in Pakistan and misappropriating funds, a huge 700 million US dollars, I wonder whether this actually will be the political demise of the dictator, who once famously remarked that he was like the proverbial cat with nine lives.Will he survive this time ? What will be the Army's stance? Has it also given up on its former General or are their surprises in store, things on the lines of the infamous October 1999 coup? Analysts say it's the final nail in the coffin. But knowing Musharraf and his notorious stubbornness, and the fact that he still has the authority to dissolve the national assembly and dismiss the Prime Minister, it is impossible to predict the outcome in advance. Although chances of this also dim in the light of the fact that the decision of dismissal has to be approved by the Supreme Court of Pakistan, whose sharp disapproval of Musharraf's doings is too well known now.

This is it as of now… more when we meet next!!

1 comment:

Mitali said...

wow. i wonder what that stalker would feel if he read this post..politics is really stupid and usually scary. since i worked for a political party, it brings back a lot of memories...of insecurities and lack of empathy from people who have immense power. the lack of trust prevails even amongst relatives who might be based in two different soils right now, but had shared the same gene few generations back. it's truly heart breaking when people live in fear. i wonder when will this end...