Thursday, May 29, 2008

Reporter at large

If there is no bread, eat meat

Pakistani cuisine is not very different for someone coming from Delhi. There are the usual kebabs, rice, parathas and nans and so on. Even the kulfi tastes the same. But as you go towards the north and to the west and south things change. For one thing, these areas are poorer and their food is simple and devoid of the elaborate spices that make up Punjabi food. My favourite “dhaba” in Islamabad is Bolan Saltish in the Blue Area (a commercial district). As the name suggests, it offers Baluchi cuisine, which is essentially meats of various kinds that are slow roasted on an open fire. This is called the Sajji method of cooking. The result is a succulent fare eaten with nan bread. There is no accompaniment of onions, lemons or pickles. Just meat and bread.

What I did miss was a treat at another of my favourites, Jahangir Balti & BBQ, one of the most popular restaurants chain in the twin cities of Rawalpindi and Islamabad.

The unrivalled capital for food is, however, Lahore. Unfortunately, I only had a morning there and had to be content with the most basic of foods in Anarkali Bazar— dhai bhalla and some kind of a chola tikki, not very different from what you would get in Chandni Chowk. This bazaar is a bit like our Chandni Chowk, replete withsomewhat tacky stuff that you would not really want to buy. But there is a lot of history behind it, just as in the case of Delhi’s historic bazaar.

But the biggest problem today is atta or flour itself. Papers were reporting that the price of a 20 kg bag of atta had gone up to Rs 600 this week. (The price in India is around Rs 340, but the value of the Indian rupee is more: $1 buys Rs 41 in India, in Pakistan it can fetch Rs 64-70 depending on where you change your money). Shortages are acute and many flour mills say that they have not received their usual supply of wheat. Drastic measures are being taken — the government has warned hoarders to offer their wheat to public sector procurement agencies or face confiscation of their stocks. There have been raids on hoarders and a ban on inter-district transfer of wheat. But as reports suggest, there are ingenious ways of getting around the problem. While bribes may work for hoarders, the smugglers, who could be the common folk around, are using ingenious ways of smuggling wheat such as carrying them in milk cans. The people who are forced to do this say that this is the first time such restrictions have been placed in the country and that they are merely demanding the right to transport wheat for their own use.

To the victor, the spoils of office

Co-chairperson of the Pakistan People’s Party Asif Ali Zardari is said to be a yaaron ka yar or friend of friends. Not surprisingly, the first item on his agenda has been to reward friends, loyalists and cronies. In the zero-sum game of Pakistan politics, when parties are ousted, the loyalists, including some civil service bureaucrats, have to go out with them. Only the most steadfast would have remained with Zardari and Nawaz Sharif in their bitter years of imprisonment and exile. Some of the rewarded are people who have had their past corruption cases cleared by the infamous National Reconciliation Ordinance issued by President Pervez Musharraf, along with those of Zardari and Benazir Bhutto. Among the more prominent among these is Mr Rehman Malik who has been appointed the internal security adviser to the prime minister. Malik has played a key role in negotiating peace with the Tehreek-e-Taliban, Pakistan and is considered one of the most powerful men in Pakistan today. Javed Tallat, a former finance secretary, has gone as executive director of Pakistan to the World Bank in Washington. Siraj Shamsuddin who has been appointed principal secretary to the prime minister is another NRO laundered man. He has seen tough days, being dismissed from the Pakistan civil service and reinstated only by a Supreme Court order.

Wanted a coup proof polity

The big issue in Pakistan today is what is called, somewhat dramatically, the doctrine of necessity. This is the doctrine through which various benches of the Pakistani Supreme Court have justified the usurpation of power by a succession of Pakistani generals with honourable exceptions in 1969 and again in 2007. The latter case of the dismissal of the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court Ifthikar Muhammad Chaudhry, all in 2007, has become a catalyst of sorts for transforming Pakistani democracy and insulating it from military interference.

Though I was there for a short while, I did meet the man who coined the term — former army chief Gen Mirza Aslam Beg. I missed the man who has just written a book to study its baleful course through Pakistani history, Shuja Nawaz. His Crossed Swords: Pakistan, its Army, and the Wars Within is unrivalled in the subcontinent in its genre.

I managed to catch up with Nawaz at the book release function he had in New Delhi on Friday. There was one curious difference in the editions being sold in Islamabad and New Delhi — the latter is devoid of maps. India’s rule penalising publications that do not show our version of the border on the maps is childish and will short-change readers of this outstanding book.

Beg is bitterly anti-Musharraf and supports moves to contain the military’s tendency to curtail democracy. He is sure that the present chief General Ashfaq Pervez Kiyani intends to get the military out of the civilian sector and enhance its professionalism.

Judicial redress?

The Musharraf era may have given Pakistan the National Reconciliation Ordinance or NRO through which the misdemeanours of the Bhuttos and the Zardaris were forgiven. But the inauguration of the new government has also brought a new mood of judicial forgiveness. A major item of news was that the last pending case against Asif Ali Zardari had been dismissed. This was a 11 year old case registered against him during the second tenure of his new friend, coalition partner and political ally Mian Nawaz Sharif. Something similar has happened to Hussain Haqqani who is the government’s new Ambassador-designate to the United States. A 1999 case againist him for a bad debt was dismissed by the Sindh High Court, but more on merits than on any apparent reconciliation policy.

Same Same

1. Lahore and Delhi

It takes some 55 minutes to get from New Delhi to Lucknow by air, while the time taken to Lahore is just 45 minutes. It is, of course, well known that the lingua franca, or the dominant cultural ethos of both is Punjabi. Well that should not be surprising since British Punjab, bordered Delhi till 1947. Even today there is a togetherness in terms of weather. The flowers in Delhi and Lahore have wilted and the amaltas are in bloom. Islamabad, which is near the latitude of Srinagar, still has a bright canopy of flowers, though just about in their last leg. The two cities also have in common their Mughal heritage,a huge red sandstone fort and a mosque of imperial dimensions. Arguably Lahore’s pace is less frenetic.

2. Sim Cards

Acquiring SIM cards are as much of a bother in Pakistan as in India. All new connections require proof of identity and whereabouts. The tough regulations, pushed by a parliament subcommittee, are now leading to a major controversy in Karachi where the telecom authorities are threatening to block out 7 million connections. The main reason for this is that cell phones have become major facilitators of serious crime like kidnapping for ransom and terrorism. Since 2004, when the service was launched, the country has gained as many as 85 million subscribers of mobile phones.

3. Crime

The texture of violence, seems similar in the two countries and we are not talking about suicide bombers. This week's paper reported how an army officer, Lt Col Riaz Azeem, was shot at and killed by two robbers who tried to hijack his car in the Gulberg area of Lahore. Another crime, this one in Islamabad, sounded as though it was straight from Delhi's crime report. Someone slit the throats of a family of an army officer — his wife and two children. He was out of the country at the time. The bodies were found partially burnt. The domestic help is, the prime suspect. From distant Karachi came reports of robbers being lynched instead of being handed over to the police. As in India, the armchair analysts of the media say that this is a result of the lack of faith of the people in the judicial system. Indeed, some of them say that the problem is a recent development, a trickle-down effect as it were of the controversy relating to the dismissal of the members of the higher judiciary by President Pervez Musharraf last November.

This appeared in Mail Today May 25, 2008

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