Are we all really living in a yellow submarine?
How can we forget 12 October 1999, a fatefully delightful day; for the fourth time in the nation’s history, the army conquered the civilians thinking the plainclothes men were inferior to the men in khaki. Governance was a business beyond the comprehension of an elected government.
Although, Islamabad’s sunrises occur at Kahuta, and the sunsets take place at Wah Ordinance Factory--both danger areas--on that particular day, the sun set at the Prime Minister’s house on Islamabad’s Loony Hills. The moon too almost appeared cleft asunder, along with other signs associated with a political doomsday.
There was not even a hint of the events that were about to unfold as I hurriedly boarded the 7:00 p.m. flight to Karachi. But somebody strange was in the air: our beloved army chief. On the way back from Sri Lanka, his airplane was not allowed to land at Karachi because Nawaz Sharif and his bad boys wanted the chief to proceed on a one-way ticket to a hostile neighbouring country. For the first time ever, police officers, airline bosses and civil aviation big wigs worked with enviable coordination to do Nawaz’s bidding. We were to learn later that the house of cards came crashing down when this hare-brained bunch were arrested for ‘attempting to kill all aboard that fateful flight’ from Colombo.
I had not yet taken my seat when the airplane’s captain announced about the sudden closure of Karachi and Islamabad airports for an indefinite period. That was unheard of. One could visualize a strike, or a protest rally paralysing Karachi, but who or what could shut down Islamabad? How could the seat of greed and connivance be threatened? Some speculated that Israeli and India had joined hands and attacked our nuclear assets--Kahuta and KANNUP. The common consensus was that we were being punished for actually going nuclear whereas the Indians had gotten away by faking an atomic orgasm.
Since there was no point in punching one another out over the issue, well-connected passengers began punching the number-pads of cellular phones. It was a planeload of three hundred souls with one nearly hundred such instruments aboard, and each with a distinctive ring or chime. Therefore, every earpiece had three human ears glued to it; such was the desire to hear what the voice at the other end said. As more return calls started to pour in, the atmosphere became emotionally charged. Obviously, people on the other side of the line sat glued to foreign television channels to provide a blow-by-blow account of the power struggle. Emotionally weak ones aboard wept and blew noses so profusely that the stewardesses ran out of serviettes.
My role was that of a pacifist. I discouraged anti-State rumours to the best of my ability but soon lost to wagging tongues. A few claimed the Americans had landed on our soil to get hold of Mr. OBL. A college professor interrupted, “Silence please. Why would anybody wish to attack this peaceful atomic nation and physically land here to apprehend an alleged terrorist? All they have to do is pay a collaborating feudal to strike a deal for a quick arrest and extradition of a wanted man to USA. They did it to Aimal Kansi and Ramzi Yusuf; so talented are they at this sort of thing.” Many agreed with the outspoken professor, the likes of whom are severely lacking at our educational institutions, precisely because honorary doctorates are conferred upon military dictators.
With three hundred adult tongues aboard, some felt the political Titanic was sinking. That inspired somebody to hum Celine Dione’s famous song from the Hollywood movie of the same name. Then a mobile phone rang; it played the Three Blind Mice melody and replaced rumours with real news: a coup was indeed underway. Like all half-baked yellow public projects, Mian Sahib’s yellow coup appeared heading for a disaster by turning khaki in colour. The college professor uttered, “Wake me up when it’s over”, and went to sleep.
The crowd demanded of the cabin crew, “Turn off that insipid boarding music.” People hushed each other in an effort to hear gunshots yet nobody knew for sure how many outlaws the cowboys had killed in the fight. First, the news of the army chief’s replacement by a new general came in. Then we heard that the elected ones were placed under arrest after the original chief struck back at the conspirators. In the end, we found out to our utter disappointment, that it was a bloodless coup because the blood of the conspirators froze and could not be shed.
Everybody aboard the airplane reacted differently. A jovial Lahorite remarked, “Partial law or martial law; we will never reform.” Important executives in dark suits fell into their seats and asked for black coffee. As if hypnotized, they loosened their Italian silk ties and sat aghast. Many swore they heard them mutter: ‘what will happen to those illegal permits; how will I recover what the Sharifs owe me; will the Chief of the Ehtesab Bureau save me from the fire of hell?’ The moral of the story: the higher you rise, the harder you fall.
Originally seated in the cattle class of the airplane, I conveniently migrated to the business class to appreciate the goings-on there. Fashionable ladies took out bottled mineral water from foreign shoulder bags and, for a change, infants stayed silent without the aid of soothers. The nation’s mouth was indeed stuffed with military soothers.
It was 8:00 p.m.; the passengers were allowed to disembark the aircraft, and move into a lounge. Many cancelled the trip out of fear of being blown out of the sky by a misguided American missile. The rest decided to wait and let the airline refresh them with stale snacks. I fell into the first category--minus the fear element, of course--and walked out of the terminal building with all thirty-two natural teeth in tact.
It was unnerving to think that Lahore airport--just like all major airports in the country--was situated in the cantonment area, therefore, whatever one saw of the military was not a special appearance but routine business. There were no armoured vehicles, only truckloads of soldiers and officers walking about briskly. Nobody got beat up or held at gunpoint. Martial law was not proclaimed, and the politicians had not struck back; they lay stupefied. It was clear that while Mian Nawaz Sharif achieved distinction as a forgettable face at a Catholic school, the generals attended Staff and Command College courses; the latter were certainly armed to the teeth and prepared for such obvious eventualities.
Taxicabs were available in abundance and without the usual hassle. Disgusted policemen were not slapping drivers, who generally asked for exorbitant fares. People just stood discussing the fluid situation in small groups of more than four, which meant Section 144 was not in place. Spin Doctor Mushahid Hussain’s ice sculpture lay liquefied. There was a silent relief, a state of near satisfaction, which indicated the citizens had welcomed the coup. Nothing surprised them anymore; they had seen it all so many times before.
The human mind cannot stay silent under trying circumstances. A man who had the potential of becoming a cricket commentator drove the taxi I took. He added more to the drama by indulging in non-stop commentary and which did not require any verbal input on my part. I promised him a hefty tip in case he shut up. He did.
The neighbour’s dog howled at the moon and the family gave me a hero’s welcome when I rang the doorbell. The spouse, the kids, the servants, and especially the pet dog, all wanted to know what was happening out on the streets. I whispered in my dog’s ear, “It’s a bitch”, and he understood.
I needed to misinform myself some more. Having no access to a satellite dish, my head became heavier while watching Pakistan Television. PTV was duller than usual and telecast only national songs that failed to pump up the pulse rate. Ad nauseam, a female announcer informed the viewers that the army chief would soon address the nation. That soon took forever as she kept repeating the pre-recorded announcement in two mother tongues. I could imagine speechwriters stretching the limits of political correctness and flowery language while preparing a convincing text for General Musharraf. That night the camera operators, the make-up artists, lighting assistants, audio and editors worked over-time to make the grand appearance of the coup leader look even more winsome.
I waited for the event until midnight but then the meaningless milli naghmas took their toll on the senses. Imaginatively, PTV re-ran tapes of singers we saw during Yahya-Bhutto days. In a situation like that, waiting for the promised speech was like expecting the promised messiah. The choice between going to bed out of boredom or staying awake was not a difficult one.
The next morning, the very few who lived to hear the army chief’s speech said it was a short affair. It was nostalgic: the same accusations, the same recycled reasons for a military take-over and the same sameness. CNN-BBC propaganda was jammed by the State and replaced with more potent PTV-stuff. And because mobile phones were jammed, the end-users got a day off talking uselessly.
Flights to Karachi and Islamabad resumed late in the afternoon with a notable difference; armed officers took familiar faces off foreign and domestic flights. The way they recognized all those cronies and crooks dressed up with nowhere to go was by employing army sleuths, doorkeepers of the assembly halls, and policemen.
They took hundreds of such respected men for ‘questioning’ to remote locations under ‘protective custody’. It was not difficult to imagine persuasive law-enforcers trying ways and means to obtain thumb impressions from the said gentlemen over ready-made documents. Shortly thereafter, the movement of notable politicians, attempting to band together for a counter-coup, was physically restricted. The army wanted all the overgrown political babies to stay with their mamas, or--in the case of Nawaz Sharif--with abba jee.
More than three years after the Yellow Coup, the feeder of democracy is still not ready to be handed over to those who have been kindly ‘chosen’ at the GHQ for us. More milk will be spilt, and more crying will follow in the days to come.
Tahir Gul Hasan holds the copyrights to his work. Written permission of the author is required for reproducing or re-printing his work on any medium.