A lamp lit in the dark


Islamabad diary

The nation owes a collective vote of thanks to their lordships Justice Abid Aziz Sheikh and Justice Shahid Karim of the Lahore High Court for passing an order – a landmark order if ever there was one – stopping the Punjab government from carrying out construction work on the Orange Train within 200 feet of 11 protected and historic monuments in Lahore.

Ruling that the no-objection certificates given by the Archaeology Department were without lawful authority, their lordships have called for fresh appraisals by consultants of international standing. The Lahore Bachao Tehrik which had been agitating over this issue and the architect Kamil Khan Mumtaz, the petitioner in this case, deserve praise as do the lawyers representing them.

The Punjab government of course is incensed, the chief minister vowing to take the matter to the Supreme Court. But arrogance and highhandedness have been dealt a sharp blow. Let’s see how the issue shapes up in the apex court.

Who is against public transportation? This sector has been neglected for long and deserves better by all governments. But there are ways of going about it. Chaudhry Pervaiz Elahi as chief minister of Punjab had proposed an underground railway scheme for Lahore which if anyone cares to look at it was a hundred times better than Shahbaz Sharif’s Orange Train. It was not destructive of Lahore’s cultural heritage and proposed on a BOT – build, operate, transfer – basis it would have cost Punjab nothing.

Underground is best. Ask anyone. Elevated expressways like the Jangla Bus Service and now the Orange Train are eyesores. But just because the underground option was Ch Pervaiz Ellahi’s baby there was no way Shahbaz Sharif would adopt it. This is the level and quality of our leaders – small egos incapable of thinking beyond their persons.

People like me used to revile Pervaiz Elahi for being a creature of Gen Musharraf’s. Everything associated with Musharraf and military rule we denounced. Everything that we thought was associated with democracy we applauded. This was also the reason why so many of us clambered aboard the bandwagon of Justice Iftikhar Chaudhry, convinced that the nation’s salvation lay in the success of the lawyers’ movement. Those were the illusions that sustained us. Such is life, or rather the march of time, each generation living by its own hopes and daydreams.

In hindsight things look different. Pervaiz Elahi, much reviled for his statement that they would elect Musharraf as president in uniform ten times over, looks a far more effective chief minister of Punjab than the incumbent. His was not a one-man show. He listened to advice and did things in a systematic manner. But when Musharraf fell on hard times the Q League and Pervaiz Elahi went down with him.

The fact remains that an underground train would have added to Lahore’s charms. Like the Paris or Moscow undergrounds it would have been an asset the people of Lahore could have been proud of. While covering far more of Lahore than the Orange Train it would have endangered no Chauburji or Shalimar Gardens.

The trouble is that our democrats can be worse than our dictators. Musharraf, for instance, was a good listener. The present lot listens to no one. They don’t believe in cabinet government, a circumstance necessitating the remarkable judgement penned by My Lord Justice Saqib Nisar of the Supreme Court, which goes to great lengths to explain the meaning of cabinet government.

If things are far from ideal at the centre they are worse in Punjab where the cabinet seldom meets and ministers have no voice and ruling party MPAs are little better than dummies. The Punjab bureaucracy is all, its mandarins better politicians than anyone else, past masters at reading the mood of their bosses and pandering to their whims, no matter how nonsensical and absurd.

Before the Lahore High Court stepped in, the Orange Train was supposed to pass close by the front of the Shalimar Gardens and very close to Chauburji and other monuments. And Punjab bureaucrats can be heard defending the Orange Train as if it is the best thing to have happened to Lahore since the Mughal conquest. But suppose the train route was to cut right through the gardens, those same mandarins, the ones close to the CM, would find a hundred reasons to declare it a brilliant idea.

When Mr Bhutto was going to Shimla in 1972 for talks with Mrs Indira Gandhi after our war with India, wanting to sound out his party men he called a consultative meeting of PPP MNAs and MPAs in Lahore. As one member after the other spoke and offered his words of wisdom, my father who was also an MNA got up and said that if Mrs Gandhi were to come on a tank to Lahore, these people whom Mr Bhutto was asking for advice would line up to welcome her and put garlands round her neck. So why was he wasting his time with them?

My father said this in front of everybody. (Rana Shaukat Mehmood, the former PPP leader who by the grace of God is still around and living in Lahore, can be asked about this.)

I mention this only to point out that this is the psychology of the great land of the five rivers. Every invader from the north Punjab has welcomed with open arms. Maharaja Ranjit Singh ruled in Punjab and the Muslim majority did not rise up against him. We call Sikh rule Sikha Shahi but it is worthwhile remembering that the Muslims of Punjab were liberated from Sikh rule not by their own efforts but by the coming of the British.

If our forefathers could accept Sikh rule, if our immediate forbears were not outraged by the Jalianwala Bagh massacre and if in more recent times a bench of Punjabi judges in a farce of a trial could sentence Zulfikar Ali Bhutto to the gallows, without too many people losing any sleep over it, how would the fate of something like Chauburji or the Shalimar Gardens disturb the outlook of us gallant people?

Shahbaz Sharif’s Orange Train only threatens the foundations and the ancient bath (hammam) of the royal pleasure gardens. Suppose someone was to acquire the gardens and announce that he was setting up a housing colony there, there would be a mad rush to buy plots in that prized location. Heritage and its preservation are for Greeks and Romans and others.

Culture and heritage, let us not forget, bring forth no political activism. Right wing and religious parties are not into such things. Culture for them is dance and music and therefore for the most part in the realm of sin. A steamroller could run through Chauburji and they would not be moved. The few people who agitate under the banner of the Lahore Bachao Tehrik are dismissed as ‘elitist’. It’s a mercy they are not dubbed agents of RAW.

In this hidebound and shallow society, let us be grateful for the few good things that can still happen. Justice Sheikh and Justice Karim have delivered a remarkable judgement. But theirs, alas, is not the last word in this matter. And the Punjab government, its bruised ego on the line, will move might and main to have the judgement reversed. Still, their lordships have lit a bright lamp in the dark. That is no small thing.