Pakistan Turns into Toba Tek Singh

Pakistan is like an airplane lost in a dark ominous cloud, running on autopilot. Its coordinates and destination were set by previous crew members, who have been made to disappear or have parachuted out.

Passengers with gurgling stomachs and sweaty brows having long realized the trouble and appear paralyzed. They have seen a stream of crew members pushed off the plane or bail out with parachute — shady hunks in khakis, but some rare trustworthy ones too.

The Captain, Asif Zardari, took over when his wife was shoved off the plane. The First Officer, Nawaz Sharif, is there propped up by his benefactor General Zia ul Haq. CIA operatives onboard, passengers learned, had forced Zia to jump off with a crate of mangoes tied to him.

Every so often the passengers are flashed the grinning faces of the two pilots to assure them that the plane is in safe hands. A sharp journalist on flight notes the lack of sparkle and empathy in their eyes and wonders if their bright smiles are a sham.

Air traffic control is in the hands of General Pervez Musharraf supported by American engineers. They built the autopilot and are the only people who now have flight plan that was entered in the plane. Suddenly, a violent thumping on the door disturbs the peace inside the locked control room. Outside, deposed Chief Justice Chaudhry Iftikhar and his attorney Barrister Aitzaz Ahsan having caught wind of the plot are trying to force their way in.

Meanwhile pandemonium reigns in the cabin. A lunatic Mullah from NWFP with a huge beard announces that he is Muhammad Ali Jinnah. While the agitated passengers look at him, from the back of the cabin a man in cricketing whites who had earlier been talking to the Mullah, declares himself Master Tara Singh. Jinnah and Singh launch into a bhangra dance in the two aisles but fail to attract the attention of the agitated passengers who are sweating in their seats. Fearing more trouble the two mad entertainers are locked up in the same toilet by on-flight security men. [This bit was left out by Dawn.]

To avoid further ruckus in the cabin the cool-headed Purser Saadat Hasan Manto puts on the film “Toba Tek Singh”, a classic drama about the confusion at the time of partition when Hindu lunatics in a city in Punjab were repatriated to India. Suddenly calm reigns as passengers get glued to the monitor in front of them. This is like the reassurance of seeing oneself in the mirror on waking every morning. That’s me you tell yourself, that face is mine, I have survived the night! The few who don’t get the plot finally realize its parallel with their condition when they read the film notes in the flight magazine (

The rest of the world retains an interest in the future of this unstable flight – an unfolding drama viewed from ground level seemingly as surreal as that experienced by those onboard. Some characters in the drama are highlighted by the international press.

The New York Times in its Sunday magazine elaborates the past and present of Aitzaz Ahsan. He makes it to the Prospect magazine’s top 100 global intellectual’

s list.   In the NYT piece, Ahsan talks about himself being the virtual deputy prime minister in Benazir Bhutto’s cabinet after Zia ul Haq was killed in 1988. Inexperience and other flaws of Bhutto mixed with serious interference by the army prevented much headway. The president fired the government in 1990. Nawaz Sharif stepped in and got the courts to try the Bhutto and her hubby, Zardari. They were defended in court by Ahsan, who now expresses disdain for Benazir viewing herself as the life chairperson of the People’s Party and has little doubt about the corruption of the couple, which he said was evident in their expenses. He nonetheless remains a member of the party, which is clearly non-democratic within its ranks. No one knows how he balances his alliances.

Justice Iftikhar who originally approved of Gen Musharraf’s takeover in 1999 has redeemed himself through his activist role in highlighting the fact of countless Pakistanis having disappeared due to the ‘war on terror’. This exposure has earned him the ire of the Yanks. He also exposed and thus stopped the deal to sell off the national steel mill to a crony of the Citibanker-turned-Prime Minister Shaukat Aziz, who is now safely back in America after his 5-year overseas duty. The Chief Justice also helped to stop the New Murree project which would have replaced a pristine pine forest in the hills with luxury hotels and villas for the filthy rich.

Meanwhile as the airborne drama of Pakistan unfolds the common citizen is burdened by sky-rocketing prices of food and other commodities, as well as a serious shortage of power coupled with serious eco-disasters. This writer, who needs to walk the darkened bazaars near his home daily from 2-3 am during blackout to avoid mosquitoes and heat, can find many who live a far more deprived existence. Take the Afghan refugee along his nightly route, a scavenger, who gathers discarded plastic bottles from the shopping area for recycling. He earns Rs 60-100 daily, a sum below subsistence level.

The plane can be flown safely if Pakistanis wake up to the reality of their situation and begin to change things for the better. Good sense and political will are levers needed to disengage the autopilot and take control of the country.