Pakistan, 50 years ago

June 19, 2011


HAVING been occupied with compiling the ‘50 years ago’ section on these pages, I have recently spent hours trawling through Dawn’s 1961 editions. It is a fascinating yet ultimately, a deeply saddening experience.

The Dawn of those days was a slimmer volume, with a format different to what it is today. The first thing to strike me was the advertising. If any of you have the impression that the Forhans toothpaste advertisement hasn’t changed in years, you’re right: it hasn’t changed in decades. Much of the advertising content is pretty much what it is today: soaps, talcum powders and so on. There are some glaring differences, though.

Advertisements for dances, cabarets, acrobatic performances and balls — how alien they seem in the modern Pakistani landscape. Karachi was reasonably important on the international landscape, and references in western literature of the time reflect an exotic Orientalism that still exists in reference to, for example, Mumbai. And so, the city often hosted world-class performers and entertainers, as to a somewhat lesser extent did Lahore.

No doubt to other people in my age group, the children of Zia, these advertisements would hold more meaning than as merely curiosities reminiscent of different times.

The ad about dinner and drinks with live dance performances at the Beach Luxury, or sister acrobats Klaudia and Karla (pictured in short, frilled skirts) at the Metropole, talk not of different times but, indeed, of a different country. Such acts have not been tolerated in Pakistan for upwards of three decades — the lifespan of an entire generation.

Even before Pakistan involved itself in America’s duplicitous ‘war on terror’, which is when the situation really went into freefall, Klaudia and Karla could not have performed here. It was the Nawaz Sharif government, after all, which banned men with long hair on television. And Zia who dictated that all women appearing on television should have their heads covered at all times, so that it would appear to audiences that they went to bed and woke up in the morning wearing their modesty firmly on their heads.

Is the tragedy greater for those who knew such a Pakistan and then watched it die? Or is it greater for those, the people who are nearing middle-age now or younger, who never saw it at all and learnt to find their way through an increasingly complicated maze of fundamentalism and repression?

And what about the children who are under 15 now? The ones who know only the Pakistan of war and militancy, of the Taliban and suicide bombings, who don’t have the experience of the Khabarnama at 9pm being the single most boring thing broadcast on the one channel that Pakistan had? Perhaps, the only conclusion to reach is that in Pakistan, tragedy abounds.

In the 1960s, there was such a place as East Pakistan. We all know this, all of us having grown up with the haunting knowledge of the country that once was. But it is different to trawl through the newspapers of that time and see the Dacca dateline, read about Field Marshal Ayub Khan’s expression of solidarity with the East Pakistanis after floods (which took place in early June, 1961), see a photograph of goods being readied to be flown to the eastern wing.

Hindsight brings clarity. It is easy, now, to read between the lines and see which way the wind would have to blow. In ’61, a decade before Bangladesh was born in blood and tears, Dawn has reports about people asking that Bengali be accorded greater status, questions of disproportionate spending and contributions to the national exchequer. Knowing what we know, it is easy to detect a certain parochialism in the debate of the time.

Going through all these newspapers, I am left with the impression of Pakistan of the early ’60s as a place with hope, its life stretching out before it fresh and untarnished — a country that was going places. Dawn’s editions from those days are full of plans: the Second Five-Year Plan was going into action, factories and industries were being set up, schemes were being formulated for the uplift and education of the rural poor in both wings of the country.

It is sobering to realise that back then, a new plan announced by the administration could not have been met with anything near the sort of cynicism with which it is received today, with people having learnt the lessons dictated by decades of failure.Fifty years ago, schemes to irrigate agricultural land in Wana and Miramshah were under way, and schools were being set up. Jute mills were being set up in East Pakistan. Women’s vocational centres were being set up seemingly all over the place. Fifty years ago, PIA had just launched its inaugural flight to New York and was one of the most successful young airlines of the time.

It’s easy to see things clearly in hindsight. Today, we can see that a number of the cancers that are tearing Pakistan apart now had already taken root, even back in 1961. The first military foray into civilian affairs had taken place, the country’s first prime minister had been assassinated and, over a decade later, no responsibility had been affixed (the irony being that the Rawalpindi park named in his honour was, just over 50 years later, to become the site where yet another prime minister was murdered, to be followed by yet another failed inquiry), a number of deeply flawed policies and mindsets had already been adopted.

But back then, could anybody have guessed the disastrous trajectory that the country was to take? From my vantage point of the present, because I am a rather fanciful person, I get the impression of the Pakistan of that time revelling in its newfound freedoms, irresponsible as a teenager — unaware of the horror its decisions would bring, dancing heedless into a future full of murder.

That was then, this is now. The past, it would appear, really is another country.

The writer is a member of staff.