THE INDIAN TRIBUNE - History is kept alive in Lahore. The Lahore Fort proclaims its lineage as the ancient dominion of legendary Luv, the son of Sri Ramchandra, the ideal Hindu king. The fort is a protected national monument, preserving, to some extent the Diwan e Aam, the Diwan e khas and the harems constructed by the Mughal Emperors who later occupied the fort at the height of their power.
The fort houses evidence of the decadence of the Mughal Empire- some poetic manuscripts of the tragic last emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, along with priceless nineteenth century murals from the era of Maharaja Ranjit Singh. Indeed Maharaja Ranjit Singh is highly regarded, we learnt, as a brave historical figure, whose Sikh empire dared the rising might of colonial Britain.
We are taken to the tomb of Anarkali, the legendary court dancer, the dalliance with whom created a romantic image for Prince Salim, later the Emperor Jahangir. It is confounding that access to Anarkali’s tomb is restricted, since it is located within the official archives, in a government building. The Secretary of the Department of Archives is Bhullar, a Muslim Jat. Bhullar has that the typical Hail-fellow-well-met approach of the extrovert landed gentry.
He enquires from us about the Bhullars in Eastern Punjab, with whom he claims kinship. Bhullar is delighted to learn his kindred are flourishing as progressive farmers, and also distinguishing themselves in the professions especially as police officers.
I am highly impressed at the quality and management of the Grand Trunk Road, as it takes off from Lahore to reach Islamabad, Pakistan’s national capital that now dominates its twin city, the traditional Rawalpindi.
The traffic on GT Road is extremely orderly, controlled as it is by a highly visible National Highway Patrol, whose members pounce enthusiastically on any traffic violators. Mehboob, my driver points out a bank van that follows the police vehicle on the highway. The function of the bank van, he explains, is to deposit all traffic fines imposed by the patrol, insulating the offenders against exploitation by the police officials. A charming innovation to tackle a malady common in our country! The road traverses the three rivers of Punjab, Ravi, Chenab and Jhelum. A parallel superhighway between Lahore and Peshawar, commissioned recently could, in quality of construction, as also the fluidity of traffic movement, liken to any motorway in Europe. It scarcely seems the same country as typified by the good old Lahore behind us.
If the town of Lahore is a study in contrasts, the city of Islamabad, perched on the edge of the state of Punjab, transports us to a fairy tale world. Modern architecture, stylish and innovative, has created a marvel of a city of immaculate streets, shaded drives, modern shopping malls and high-tech application, befitting a prestigious national capital. A showpiece for foreign visitors, Islamabad can be pictured as a grander Chandigarh transposed to an international stage. The most visible difference from Chandigarh is in respect of strict regulation of urban laws.
Islamabad is situated at the base of a mountain range, as Chandigarh is, but the city has not so far succumbed to the pressures common to a developing economy in the Third World. Legislation is enforced, we find; encroachers on public land, and slums, are non-existent. Islamabad is spread over an undulating area measuring 900 square kilometres, of which 220 square kilometres serves as parks, with 460 square km preserved in the original rural setting. The urbanised portion covers just 220 square km.
Even as we gape breathlessly at this picture-postcard of a Utopia, the hotel porter brings us rudely down to earth. “What attractions could there be for Indian visitors?” he questions innocently, unimpressed with the regulation and compliance of urban laws.
“Nothing special to see in Islamabad,” he avers. What excite him are cricketers from India and Hindi films. It is the fantasy of a foreign land brought alive by the medium of television that is for him the ultimate reality, not his own elite city. Truly, distance has leant enchantment to the view, at least to a young man like this.
Casual conversation leads the locals frequently to launch a general diatribe against authority, represented by the politician, the petty civil servant, and amazingly, even the military. Governance is a major issue. Dissatisfaction with the quality of public service is articulated by the porter, the taxi-driver, the cloth retailer, the phone-booth attendant. The man in the street seems fairly apathetic to the form of administration at the very top, be it military rule or a variation of democracy.
Most people are fascinated with the functioning of Indian democracy, to learn about an environment novel and alien to them. There is grudging admiration for the system of elections that are then in progress in India. They are somewhat reassured when we intone about similar visible ills of the system in India- the partisanship, the venality, the divisiveness of public figures. Pakistanis talk openly of the weekly charges- it’s called ‘hafta’ as in India levied by petty police constables. They gripe at a deteriorating system of education that has created numerous inefficient school boards whose writ, absurdly, is limited to single districts in the state of Punjab.
There is great resentment among the traders as well as the farmers with regard to the latest decision of the government to regulate the movement of wheat grain district-wise . Hotly discussed is an initiative of the government of Pakistan to effect democratic decentralisation in administration.
The powers of the Deputy Commissioners, heretofore regarded, as in India, as the eyes, ears and hands of the government, are to devolve upon elected nazims in the districts. How common, how tempting it is to rail at the establishment! I am transported back to an India of an imperfect polity, to a Punjab that derives its name from its original five waters, yet squabbles for its professed share in two and a half of these rivers.