Myriad glimpses of a conflicted society

BY MEENA MENON| IN Books | 04/06/2017
During a short tenure which ended in her expulsion, the Hindu’s correspondent covered swathes of life in Islamabad.
Extracts from MEENA MENON’S ‘Reporting Pakistan’




Reporting Pakistan, Meena Menon, Penguin Random House, Gurgaon, 2017, Pages 384, Rs 599.


Spooks on my trail

Initially I was lulled into a sense of well-being because of the warmth of people and the comfort of living in Islamabad. It was the end of the summer when we got there and soon the temperatures dropped, and we didn’t even need fans. The first question that many would ask me was: ‘Are you being tailed?’ or ‘Where are your friends’?  It was during a routine visit to the visa office in January 2014, with its corridors reeking of urine, that I realized that I was really being tailed. Two men literally walked into me, it could not have been an accident—a bearded creature in a salwar kameez who tried to leer all the time while trying to look grim and failing; and a younger man, chubby, and awkward about what he was doing. I will name them Beard and Chubby. That same evening they walked into a café where I was waiting to meet someone for an interview. I was sitting in a plush sofa near the door when Beard pushed open the glass door and stopped suddenly on seeing me. Satisfied that he had ‘terrorized’ me, he shut the door abruptly and walked outside. I sometimes wished their intelligence could be put to better use, for instance, stopping young men blowing themselves up in public places or preventing them from wrecking churches, courts and marketplaces. The first time I went to the house of an Indian diplomat, we got out hesitantly from the car and a burly red-moustached man was there to welcome us; he announced my name with satisfaction. I was impressed he knew my name and was so welcoming, but the diplomat laughed and said that they were his ‘friends’. Some well- meaning people went to the extent of telling me that these guys were meant for my safety and that they could be quite helpful; one Britisher said they helped his parents get a rickshaw in Lahore when they were struggling with the language. I was relieved to hear that spooks were tailing people from other countries as well. To the credit of Pakistanis, they knew I had this baggage, but they would rarely refuse to meet me or entertain me in their homes, and often it was a subject of much laughter and jokes. My driver, too, was constantly pestered for information and he was quite savvy about the goings-on in the capital. Even if they obviously didn’t follow me everywhere, they would know where I went and land up there and grill people endlessly on why I was meeting them, what I wanted to know, and whether I asked any ‘sensitive’ questions.


* * * * * * * * * *


The Aam Aadmi Party effect

I found that two politicians fascinated Pakistanis. One was Narendra Modi who seems to have quickly replaced Vajpayee in popular memory, and the other was Arvind Kejriwal who had won the Delhi assembly elections then. First it was Arslan- ul-Mulk from Gujranwala whose Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) was registered with the Election Commission of Pakistan (ECP) and then a former foreign services officer and lawyer, thirty-four-year- old Adnan Randhawa had applied to the ECP for registering his Aam Aadmi of Pakistan Party (AAPP).

He was formerly deputy secretary in charge of central information of the PTI led by Imran Khan, a party which has often been likened to the AAP in India. Yet, Randhawa had become disillusioned with the way things were going and the turning point came on 3 March 2014 when he saw the district court being fired at and bombed from his office overlooking the complex. He expected a strong statement from his party which was not forthcoming and it was still harping on a rapprochement with the terrorists. That’s when he decided enough was enough and quit his party. He found it difficult to defend his party’s stand on terrorism and he felt an out-of-the-box solution was needed.

A diplomat-turned-political worker, he was posted in China for two years before becoming a protocol officer in Pakistan. Like Kejriwal, he too wants to appeal to the educated middle class and end the corruption of the ruling elite. He has studied the AAP phenomenon in India and felt that it had given a voice to the voiceless, and winning the Delhi assembly, a major power centre, was remarkable. Kejriwal symbolized honesty and credibility, and that’s what he wanted to emulate in Pakistan. His new party was to bear a resemblance to both the AAP in India and the PTI. He hoped to draw from workers of the PTI who were not status quoists and were sincere. I don’t know what became of his venture.


* * * * * * * * * *


Don’t mess with the Lady in Black

In a country where terrorists shut down schools in the name of Islam and go to extreme lengths to prevent girls from studying, the Burka Avenger cartoon series was a revolution of sorts. To create a burka-clad superheroine was a master stroke. Its rather modest creator, pop and rock star Aaron Haroon Rashid—simply known by his stage name Haroon—gave me a long interview on his work. It was a Friday and while I was almost late and skipped lunch as it was between interviews, I waited for half an hour and nearly gave up before he arrived, full of apology.

Burka Avenger was launched online first, and he wasn’t prepared for the explosion. The first three days after launching the cartoon, the website got 4 million hits, and it was his presence of mind to host the site on an expensive private server that saved the day. When I met him, Burka Avenger was getting 1 million views a week, going from zero to 120,000 fans in a flash. It was after the first episode went online that people took to it in a big way. Not many had seen the launch on 29 July 2013 on Geo Tez channel. After the initial scepticism about the burka-clad woman, people realized she was a schoolteacher with a purpose. The costume was a disguise but a handful of people who were not used to superhero comics were critical. Unwilling to use a Chinese martial art for his superheroine, Haroon invented a new sport called Takht Kabaddi—takht is slate in Urdu, and Takht Kabaddi is to do with books and pens and advanced acrobatics. It draws strongly on cultural elements and local themes from the subcontinent. The characters in the cartoon have Asian or Pakistani touches—if you look at the robot Rubot, he’s got truck art on him, and Vadero Pajero is the embodiment of the corrupt politician. Haroon said he had a lot of fun inventing the characters and places in the story set in Halwapur—he liked halwa puri—and some of the characters you get familiar with are Tinda, Khamba, Baba Bandook—a very Gabbar Singh-like character—Golu the goat, and Mooli.


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Houbara bustard and foreign policy

As a wildlife enthusiast, I was horrified by the hunting of the houbara bustard every year by wealthy Arab princes and leaders. While licences to hunt were issued for ten days, there was little regulation, and I read that the Arabs often left behind their large SUVs and guns, much to the delight of the poor locals who helped in the hunting. The Arabs consider it an aphrodisiac, and also capture it to train falcons. The large number of dead birds in 2014 provoked outrage and condemnation. The big story came after I left. In August 2015, the Pakistan Supreme Court had banned the hunting of this species classified as vulnerable on the IUCN’s Red List, but the government in a bid to reverse the ban came up with an unexpected contention. The bustards—dead ones— were a cornerstone of Pakistan’s foreign policy, probably the first bird to be so honoured, and the hunting couldn’t be stopped. The Dawn in a sarcastic editorial wrote: ‘The houbara bustard is a highly regarded bird, but perhaps it too would be surprised to learn that it is a cornerstone of Pakistani foreign policy.’12

Indiscriminate hunting is reducing the numbers of these birds in Pakistan and Iran, which is why there have been petitions seeking to regulate this activity. But the Pakistan government has been giving its Arab friends diplomatic licence to hunt as much as they liked. The Dawn editorial minced no words: ‘A far more sensible approach would have been to submit, along with the core legal arguments, a detailed plan on how the provincial and federal governments would ensure that only limited hunting in strict compliance with licence conditions will be allowed and what fresh conservation steps will be taken to protect the migratory birds. The houbara bustard is a national treasure, not a cornerstone of foreign policy. Perhaps the PML-N needs to rethink its approach to policy, local and foreign—it increasingly appears feckless in both.’

Then in January 2016, the Supreme Court overturned the ban, much to the dismay of conservationists. The apex court order which had one dissenting judge said: ‘Examination of the laws clearly shows that permanent ban on hunting of houbara bustard is not envisaged.’13 


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