Thursday, 7 February 2013

Reflections from Pakistan IX: Lahore and the 1971 Indo-Pak War

From Pakistan's agricultural heartland of Multan, I travelled to Lahore. As a die-hard Karachite, Lahore always evokes mixed feelings within me. There is the nascent emotion, fuelled by some politicians and segments of the media, of Punjabi perceived hegemony over other parts of Pakistan. Punjab's rise as a major industrial and commercial region in the 1990s, mainly at Karachi's expense, also does nothing to soothe my fears, particularly if Punjab's economic emergence is viewed as an offshoot of the Nawaz Sharif's clan's nepotism.

However, common sense brings me back to reality. By population, Punjab is Pakistan's largest province. It is natural (and logical) that Punjab will play a significant role in the country's affairs, through enlistment in the bureaucracy and the military.

The 'hot button' issues between Punjab and the 'others' pertain to allocation of power and money - matters such as the use of the fast depleting water resources of the Indus River or the federal government powers to collect tax across the four provinces. (The 'others' in the debate being Pakistan's less populated provinces of Balochistan, Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa and Sindh.)

For the moment, I will resist the temptation to jump into the fray and allow the Council of Common Interests to ensure an equitable arrangement for Pakistan's population. I admit, it is a dangerous act –almost treason – to leave such a seminal matter to Zaradari and his henchmen but there are enough vocal critics around the country to give me solace in my silence.

Back to Lahore. My mother is from Lahore. In fact, her family's ancestry places her on the fringes of Lahore's nobility. My grandfather, Sheikh Azimullah, was one of colonial India's first Muslim lawyers. 'Native' lawyers were rare a hundred or so years ago.

As an anti-colonialist, he fought for change in a sustainable manner, through the system. His pragmatic acceptance of the British colonial system is evidenced by his appointment as the Mayor of Lahore by the British. However, as a Muslim intellectual, he rubbed shoulders with Allama Iqbal – the spiritual Godfather of independent Pakistan – and devoted significant efforts towards the uplift of the subcontinent's Muslim community. For this purpose, he founded several educational and charitable institutions.

But my Lahore is different from my grandfather's Lahore. To me, Lahore is where I witnessed the 1971 Indo-Pak war: a modern legacy of hatred born in the post-colonial era.

1971 was an exciting time to be an ignorant five year old boy. At the time, the implications of war and the reality of violence were unknown to me. I never even knew when the war started or ended.  

For me the war was symbolized by the freshly dug trench in our garden, to be used in case of an air raid on the city. It seemed natural for me to watch an Indian air force plane being downed by a Pakistani fighter jet during a dogfight witnessed from our kitchen door. Even a five year old boy could recognize the green and white decals on a Pakistan Air Force plane. (At the time, Pakistan had access to superior Western military technology and was part of the 'Free World.' India, meanwhile, was an ally of communist Soviet Union and India's relations with the West were tense.)  

But my memories of Lahore are much more than simply the 1971 war.

As any young boy in Lahore, I flew kites any chance I got. I will never forget the day a huge kite – the obvious loser in a neighbourhood 'pecha' or kite fight – flew unclaimed into our garden. To this five year old, it was the largest kite ever.

A man cooking breakfast inside the old, walled city of Lahore
Today's Lahore retains some of yesterday's character. The enclosed walled city of the Mogul's still exists. The Shalimar Gardens and Emperor Jahangir's tombs stand. Nonetheless, in so many other ways Lahore is just another of Pakistan's cities. Traffic is horrendous. Population pressures are everywhere. The infrastructure is under serious stress.

Perhaps the best way to describe Lahore is that it is not Karachi! Karachi is a 'youngish' free for all where few have the time to worry about others. Lahore seeps history from its pores and is a goldfish bowl. Everyone watches everyone watching everyone.  

In Lahore, families have histories. Relatives matter. Etiquette and protocol are important. Traditions have faded but not disappeared. For those wishing to escape Lahore's traditions (or family pressures), there still remains the nuclear option: up and move to Karachi.
Imran is a business and management consultant. Through his work at Deodar Advisors and the Deodar Diagnostic, Imran improves profits of businesses operating in Singapore and the region. He can be reached at