Islamabad diary

Shujaat Bukhari shares observations from a recent trip to the Pakistani capital

Islamabad diary
I have been traveling to Islamabad almost every year since 2011. Some years ago, fear and insecurity writ large. Passing through the diplomatic enclave and the red zone was not easy. But today, there is semblance of relief even as two major attacks took place in Lahore and Islamabad when I was there in the third week of February. In 2011, I had written that it was easier to enter the 15 Corps headquarters in Srinagar than Serena and Marriot hotels in Islamabad even if you are staying there as a guest. Today, the situation has eased to an extent. Friends say that Zarb-e-Azab and the National Action Plan (NAP) against extremist militants has worked and an estimated 1,800 militants have been eliminated since the launch of the operation. There is an air of change in the capital.

However, a new dimension that one could see in the security situation is that after the December 16 attack on Army School in Peshawar was that security around schools and colleges has been scaled up. The height of their walls has gone up, and I found myself home on seeing concertina wire as an added layer to the security of schools. Police patrolling around all schools has also been increased. Embassies have also doubled up their security. Still, the fear is not as palpable as it was three years ago.

Valentine’s Day:

On February 14, Islamabad was bubbling with V-day activities. Gift shops were well decorated. Red roses, greeting cards and all other accessories made impact in the markets generally flirted by the elites. In universities, one could see young boys and girls huddling on the benches, exchanging pleasantries and enjoying the day. There was no sign of resistance to this celebration in a country that is seen as home to Islamic extremists. In fact, a group of friends had organized a lunch that day at the “Dhaba” outside the Quaid-e-Azam University. They had come with roses and in full public view. The day was given its due. Onlookers, mostly bearded men, did not have a problem. “Is that normal?” I asked. “Yes,” one friend said. “But this may not be true in the rural areas. Cities like Lahore, Karachi and Islamabad celebrate St Valentine’s Day more openly. Although there is resistance from religious groups, those who want to celebrate are not stopped forcibly.”

Nehru, a temple and a gurdawara:

Saidpur is a village in the heart of Islamabad. Located on the slopes of the Margalla Hills and off the Hill Road to the east of Daman-e-Koh, it was almost forgotten until former president Pervez Musharraf rediscovered it in 2006. After it was re-done, the village gives a view of the multicultural local heritage the place has, from before 1947. Besides a chain of restaurants and sitting places, it has a museum that has a fine collection of pictures, beginning in the 1960s when Islamabad was chosen as the new capital. The supervisor spoke of a temple and a gurudwara that continue to be in good shape though without any worshippers. They are well maintained. Among the pictures, he points to one in which Pandit Nehru is sitting with President Ayub Khan getting an overview of the master plan for the city.

One can also see a treasure at the museum at Taxila Institute of Asian Civilization at Qaud-e-Azam University. A PhD scholar at the institute, Rukhsana Khan, tells me that this museum has some priceless artifacts. The scholars continue to work on many aspects of the Indus Valley Civilization, especially the towns of Taxila and Mohenjo Daro in Pakistan.
It was easier to enter the 15 Corps headquarters in Srinagar than hotels in Islamabad

Bollywood and Haider:

Despite having been banned by the Pakistani government, Vishal Bhardwaj’s film Haider is popular among many Pakistanis I know. They wonder why their government banned it, since the movie portrayed the “repression” and “torture” by the Indian state in Kashmir. Some of my friends were curious how Haider passed the Indian Censor Board, as “this is the best one could get from Bollywood”.

“With a new board in place, we can’t have such movies any longer,” I responded cynically. One scene that many spoke about was when the “Kashmiri in the film” didn’t enter his home for about a minute as he is used to frisking. “That was very powerful,” a friend said. Indian movies are very popular in Pakistan, but those who know something about Kashmir love this one the most.

Metro Bus:

A new metro bus infrastructure is under construction in Islamabad. I have noted that when it comes to road infrastructure, the quality and speed of work in Pakistan is unparalleled. The Lahore-Peshawar motorway, built by Nawaz Sharif during his first tenure, is a marvel in itself. Similarly, his brother Shahbaz Sharif made a metro line in Lahore in record time during his previous tenure. Now, Nawaz has taken up a metro bus service in the capital, and this 25 kilometer project is to be completed in a record 10 months. The line will connect Pindi Saddar with Constitution Avenue through Murree Road and will help ease traffic congestion. Some people complain that it has, at least as of now, disturbed the ambiance of the city.

TV channels:

One thing I have always been curious about is why prominent anchors switch TV channels so often. Perhaps the answer lies in better salaries, as more and more new channels emerge. Pakistan owes the boom in its TV industry to Pervez Musharraf, but they hardly remember him for the good things he did.

Shujaat Bukhari is a veteran journalist based in Srinagar, and the editor-in-chief of Rising Kashmir