Monday, April 22, 2013

Where's the change?

At noon I stood at a deserted Liberty roundabout with two other friends who had come along with me for the ride, both jalsa virgins there to absorb the atmosphere. But there was no atmosphere (or too much of just the atmosphere) to be had at this early hour so we did what any self respecting PTI-supporter would do in such a situation, we drove down to Espresso; can't undervalue the need for a hearty breakfast on one's march towards inqilaab.

I had been an inadvertent and spontaneous attendee at the last PTI rally in Lahore and the joyous spirit of that day and the unique way in which I experienced my city was enough to goad me to return, as reporter, observer and latent hopeful for change. Wearing an Imran Khan t-shirt that I was coaxed into by a PTI-jiyaala friend who has been volunteering for the party from early morning to midnight for the past two weeks, I constantly shifted gears between laughing along with my politically skeptic friend, there just for the anthropological experiment, and my passionately devoted, single mindedly inqilaabi pal.
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Around 1 the roundabout began stirring with some burger activity (not talking about the food any longer) and a truck and few jeeps laden with the usual chest-thumping Insafians went off to Defence to gather greater momentum while the eight of us piled into two cars and made our way directly to Minar-e-Pakistan. The streets were nearly deserted in comparison with the 30th October rally that had clogged the Mall Road, which meant that we reached the Government College roundabout in no time, near where we parked our cars to walk all the way to the Yaadgaar (as Minar-e-Pakistan is known in Lahorispeak). I remember many, many more women on the streets walking towards the ground last time and men shouting at others to pave way for them. I also recall an atmosphere much more festive and considerably more inclusive, a spontaneous overflow of people from all walks of life instinctively coming together for a change that at that very moment they were helping shape into a viable and vibrant possibility. This rally in comparison was a more hard-nosed affair with an assortment of political workers, loiterers and party-goers making up the bulk of the crowd.

Compared with the last one, this was a more hard-nosed affair with an assortment of political workers, loiterers and party-goers making up the bulk of the crowd

Outside Minar-e-Pakistan chaos reigned and we (seven men and one woman) were directed to the 'family entrance' (family in Pakistan being a loose term for any kind of group containing a woman), choked with men of all variety trying to push their way in as the police tried to push back from the other direction. Calling my reporter's wit into action I sandwiched myself between two of my friends and using them and my PTI flag and stick as protective shields staved off pinches and gropes to finally be able to thrust myself past the beeping gate into the Minar-e-Pakistan ground. This being the price a Pakistani woman has to pay for wanting to participate in public life.

Once inside, the scenes in the ground also seemed more anarchic to me than last time. In the vast 'family enclosure' that we found ourselves in there was the usual variety of young, affluent PTI supporters but less flag-waving, sunglasses toting Defence aunties than before. Religious slogans came fast and thick from the loudspeakers with a recording of Imran Khan reciting a chunk from Surah Fateha a particular favourite, only to be interrupted for azaan break with the following impassioned plea for respect from the emcee, 'after all, all of us here are Muslims', the irony of the jalsa ground being a stone's throw away from the accursed Joseph Colony completely lost on him (and a crowd drunk on the rhetoric of change).

Imran spent the first fifteen minutes cementing his Islamic credentials

Once I felt I had absorbed enough of the crowd around me I decided to go forth on my own and make my way to the elevated press box to capture an aerial view of the crowd, something I hadn't been able to do last time. Almost everyone readily made way as I brandished my press card in front of me and threaded my way through the crowd only to be confronted with barbed wires and a long alternate route from outside the gates to legitimately get to the press container. Loath to get anywhere near the gates again, and that too alone, I agreed to be led by two men who took me safely through a complex maze of trampled wires and enterprising short routes to the press container, once again safely through to my destination thanks to the benevolence of men.
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The ocean of people and flags that I witnessed from above was well worth the effort. If this crowd was not any bigger than last time's then it was certainly not any smaller. From my elevated vantage point I could see hundreds and thousands of people amongst a sea of thumping flags stretching out as far as the eye could go, with the grand Badshahi Mosque sprawling in the background and the lit Minar-e-Pakistan rising high in front of me. It was a sight. But a sight woefully marred by the messages that emanated from the political stage. Abrar-ul-Haq's 'new' song for the occasion, 'Imran Khan de jalsay tea ajj mera nachnay nu ji karda ae' sung to the tune of an Indian Punjabi number 'Saun di jhari de vich teray naal nachnay nu ji karda ae' proved to be the best metaphor of the night for me -tweaking a few words to an old tune does not a new and original song make.

The change Imran Khan talks about never addresses any of my concerns as a secular, female citizen of this country

There was a parallel to be drawn between Abrar passing off someone else's song as his or watching Salman Ahmed set the same old Junoon riffs to repeated chants of InshAllah and Shah Mehmood Qureshi's desperate and thoroughly cynical attempts at rousing the crowd with anti-India and anti-Bangladesh (a new low even for him) rhetoric. In every aspect of this year's rally it was visible that the idealism of a year and a half ago had been replaced with manipulative attempts at realpoiltik, spearheaded by old hands like Qureshi who think that they can win popular support by moving the crowd's basest metals, all a far cry from Strings' Mayn Tau DekhooN Ga whose sincerity had drawn even cynics like me to go misty eyed at the last Lahore rally. Instead this political gathering delivered spent old musicians trying to revive their careers through political injections and out of touch old politicians falling back on rhetoric from the '80s that sounds hopelessly outdated post widespread mainstream and social media attempts at people-to-people harmony.

Imran Khan, whose sincerity I trust but whose political vision I fear, came on to the stage when a real downpour was beginning to look imminent. According to my PTI friend that prompted him to mutilate his speech which would otherwise have focused on hardcore agenda issues first rather than the rhetorical 'promises' all of us were subjected to. He spent the first fifteen minutes cementing his Islamic credentials, something he found of greater import than the actual manifesto PTI was meant to unveil that day. In an uplifting moment during his speech, though, the breeze picked up and people instinctively raised their flags to the wind creating a soaring ocean of stiff flags fluttering strongly against the gust, but soon the drops began to fall. Imran Khan is perhaps the only public figure in the country who can inspire people to stand in the pouring rain to listen to him finish his speech but after 10 minutes the rain became so hard and driving people inevitably fled for their lives.

Perched atop a steel container with the freezing wind and rain slapping me hard across the face I scrambled to find the makeshift steps in the dark that would get me one step nearer to exiting the grounds. Someone thrust a cardboard container into my hand as they saw me shivering in the cold and in a futile attempt at staving off the cold I wrapped it around myself while I blindly made my way in the dark. Yet again a man came to my rescue, guiding me safely out of the grounds in an otherwise menacing atmosphere full of testosterone and frustrated energy let loose. In the following days I read that a lot of women had not been quite as lucky as I, facing severe sexual harassment at the hands of fellow ringers of change.

That is the strongest impression I took away from the whole experience, that the change Imran Khan talks about never addresses any of my concerns as a secular, female citizen of this country, as a woman who wants to experience public space without fear, an individual who wants the business of religion and state to be separated or at least not have self-righteous religiosity thrust upon me as the one-size-fits-all panacea for all human beings. I desperately wanted to believe in the change, I really did, for myself, for the country, for the sake of friends with immense faith in Imran Khan, but too much at this jalsa pushed me in the opposite direction.


Published in The Friday Times (March 29 - April 4)