The making of a patriot

May 11 2019


EVERY once in a while our land is witness to an unsavoury name-calling game where one entity or the other is labelled a traitor after powerful quarters have failed to subdue such an entity and attain their objective through other, more legitimate and decent means.

Our latest round of name-calling took me back to the summer of 1988 when I happened to be in London on a short transit stop en route to the US to visit my brother. One of the must items on my ‘to do’ list whilst there was to visit a family member who was very ill in hospital.

I emerged from one of London Underground’s worst lines, the Northern Line, at the Belsize Park Station, turned right towards the Royal Free Hospital. A couple of hundred metres up the road I saw someone familiar at a pavement café reading a paper and sipping coffee.

I walked up to the person, introduced myself as a journalist from Karachi, and told him he wouldn’t know me as I was a student when he first went into exile. The tall man in a dark shalwar-kameez and blazer, with a perfectly trimmed beard and wearing gold-rimmed glasses greeted me warmly.

Jam Sadiq Ali and I chatted briefly. His longing for home was obvious from his conversation. I know of no exile or migrant who is not filled with such longing. He insisted that I break bread with him. I explained why I couldn’t accompany him to his home across the street as I had a tight window to visit my relative in hospital.

Propelled by his fury at what he perceived as a slight by the PPP, Jam Sadiq’s strong-arm tactics caused serious dents in the party.

Holiday over, a few weeks later, I was back in Karachi and into my routine as a reporter of doing the rounds of possible sources of news in my assigned beat. That is, or at least was, the norm for reporters. The day started with calling on various people who are connected with your beat.

I worked for an Islamabad-based newspaper, The Muslim, and its Karachi bureau had only a handful of reporters so all of us were given multiple areas of responsibility. I covered politics, defence and also law and order, which meant meeting various security officials from police to security services.

During a conversation with one such source I happened to mention my London meeting with Jam Sadiq Ali. The official launched into a diatribe against the Sindh politician and claimed: “He is in the pay of India and receives regular ‘cover payments’ from the Indian Airlines.”

Knowing well how everyone who is seen as challenging the most well-established power centre in Pakistan has been dubbed a traitor at one point or the other, I dismissed from my mind these wild allegations and forgot all about them.

Over the next few months, Gen Ziaul Haq and some of his key associates were killed in an air crash, fresh elections were held, and after all efforts to deny Benazir Bhutto the seat of power came to nought, the PPP leader took over as the country’s first woman prime minister.

On her visits to Karachi, sometimes Ms Bhutto would want to meet journalists who covered her as an opposition leader for a chat at Bilawal House. In one such meeting, a journalist asked her why had she not offered Jam Sadiq Ali a position in government, since he’d returned home after the restoration of democracy.

The prime minister shocked many with her response. She said she wanted to but had been constrained by the intelligence agencies which had blocked Jam Sadiq Ali’s appointment to any key government office due to ‘security concerns’.

I remember interviewing Jam Sadiq Ali for the Herald magazine at around the same time and I realised that the Jam was feeling pretty let down by the PPP leadership for ignoring him. He was bitter as he felt he’d been loyal to the party and faced a hard time in exile during military rule.

At the same time, the PPP’s relations with both President Ghulam Ishaq Khan and the military led by Gen Mirza Aslam Beg were steadily deteriorating. Less than two years into her tenure, Benazir Bhutto’s government was dismissed and parliament dissolved by the president in exercise of powers under the Zia era infamous 8th Amendment.

By the time the axe fell on its government, the PPP may have been the only one unaware of what was happening as almost everyone else knew it was coming. What few saw coming was Jam Sadiq Ali being named caretaker chief minister of Sindh, with annihilating the PPP in its power base as his main mandate.

He took to the task with a zeal only he was capable of. Propelled by his fury at what he perceived as a slight by the PPP, his strong-arm tactics caused serious dents in the party and, even after the elections, he stayed in the saddle, with the support of the MQM.

A few months after the Jam was ‘elected’ as Sindh’s chief executive, I happened to come across a friend who was on the staff of one of the services chiefs. The young officer was not often seen in Karachi. So, I asked him what brought him to the metropolis.

He responded by saying all the service chiefs and even the chairman of the joint chiefs of staff committee were in Karachi for dinner at the invitation of Jam Sadiq Ali. “You know how persuasive Jam Sahib is. Nobody can say no to him,” my friend said by way of an explanation.

I marvelled at the transformation; at the embrace as a patriot of a politician by those whose key institutions were questioning his loyalty to the country just months earlier. All because of the side he was on then and now.

The writer is a former editor of Dawn.

Published in Dawn, May 11th, 2019