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Black is not white

October 05, 2008

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FORTUNE has given me the pleasure of having a good friend who has lived on this earth for 93 years, though looking at him and talking to him one would never be able to guess his true age.

Mahmud Futehally is at peace with his Maker and it would seem that his Maker is at peace with him. Amazingly, the man still has great faith in the goodness of man and his aim in life remains, at this advanced age, to somehow benefit the population at large, and particularly the poor and deprived. His activities in the field of agriculture and horticulture are laudable.

On September 11 of this year, Mohammad Ali Jinnah`s death anniversary, he asked me whether I was aware that the large cement signboard on a periphery road running past Jinnah`s Mazar on which was engraved the words `Dadabhai Naoroji Road` had been removed and a smaller tin signboard put in its place. No, I was not aware.

The following day, I passed by to check the road`s new name and the tin signboard and discovered that some enterprising person had been prompted to spray upon it `peshab karna mana hai.`

To digress for a moment Dadabhai Naoroji Road was named much prior to the year of Jinnah`s death. Our road-name changers are obviously unaware that the man who founded and made their country was laid to rest in the proximity of a road named after one of his mentors. To quote Stanley Wolpert (Jinnah of Pakistan, pub. OUP 1984) “In politics, Jinnah`s heroes remained Dadabhai Naoroji and another brilliant leader of Bombay`s Parsi community, Sir Pherozeshah Mehta ...”

One of the original founders of the Indian National Congress, Naoroji left India for London and decided that he would stand for election to the House of Commons. In 1891 he succeeded — the first Indian to be elected to the British parliament.

Ironically, he was helped by a man who did his best to ensure that he would not be elected, the prime minister of the day, Lord Salisbury. By his speaking the following words he ensured Naoroji`s success “however great the progress of mankind has been and however far we have advanced in overcoming prejudices, I doubt if we have yet got to that point of view where a British constituency would elect a black man.”

The British, whatever else they may be, believe in fair play and supporting the underdog.

The words `black man` made a hero of Naoroji. Salisbury was publicly castigated for his insult to members of the great British Empire, Naoroji became a household name, and his constituency delivered.

Now, back to this September 12 when I went to the Mazar and asked the keepers to let me have photocopies of what had been written by the September 11 visiting `dignitaries` in the visitors` book. I was given copies of remarks recorded by the president, the Sindh governor and the Sindh chief minister. Subsequently, on September 14, I wrote in my column “Recorded by Asif, in illegible handwriting resembling that of a stressed physician, were the words “May Gaad [sic] give us the street [sic] to save Pakistan.”

The internet then took over, and messages attaching a photocopy of what had been written were flashed around the world. The spooks sprang into action. They removed from the 100-page book the double-page on which Zardari`s message and that of the Karachi station commander were recorded, leaving 98 pages in the book in which visitors will now record their views, and on a fresh page rewrote Zardari`s message correcting the two misspelled words.

On September 26, on the back page of The Nation, a news item under the heading `Zardari`s misspelled remarks proved fabricated` reproduced images of the original page and the rewritten new page, informing readers that “Some hidden hands have sent an email ... claiming that the President had misspelled the words God and strength. However a verification of this matter by The Nation revealed that the campaign was a venomous propaganda against President Zardari ... It was distressing to note that a senior English-language columnist did not bother to verify the facts and added fuel to fire in his column while referring to this fabricated story.”

This was picked up by APP and their report on the `outrage` was printed on September 27 in The News under the heading `Spokesman slams malicious campaign against Zardari` and in The Nation under the heading `Propaganda against Zardari `malicious``, both telling us that “The presidential spokesman has taken strong exception to a malicious campaign initiated by some anti-democratic elements to tarnish the image of President Asif Ali Zardari.”

Not to be outdone, that same day an editorial in The Daily Times under the heading `A shameful forgery` commented on the original Nation report of the 26th. It opened up “The past week has seen a vicious electronic and press campaign maligning President Asif Ali Zardari through a forgery”, and reproduced the comments about hidden hands and the columnist.

This was all very unnecessary and somewhat foolish to draw even more attention to the matter. The initial news report did no favour to the president, and neither did the amateur `presidential spokesman` who would have done better to remain silent. Admitting that fuel had been added to fire indicates that indeed a fire burns (or even rages) when it comes to the matter of Zardari`s image.

Unfortunately, for him and for us as a nation, his image has not been exactly shining since the early 1990s. Botheration and concern about his image is nothing new, but it has all been enhanced since the tragic assassination of his wife, his usurpation in her name of the largest (apart from the army) political party of this country, and his subsequent indirect election through the various assemblies and senate to the post of head of state.

The image took further hefty knocks when he decided to do his bit for his relationship with the US and attend the UNGA meeting and address it (Benazir`s photo carried in and placed by him on the rostrum). His behaviour, as reported in our press and in the international press and as commented upon in detail by the American media, did little to enhance the image. So be it.

Now, what he should do is appoint a federal education minister in double-quick time so that the upcoming citizens and leaders of this country at least learn how to spell correctly.