The way it was: Aay watan pyaray watan

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

I believed in cantonments because I am a great believer in tradition and national heritage, even if aspects of it may threaten to lead to our undoing

Successively and relentlessly most speakers were trying the patience of an obliging gathering. Yelling in the microphone does not necessarily help ignite feelings. Striving for repeated crescendos merely makes the voice crack. The speakers rave and rant while the listeners often remain cold even in hot weather.

Crammed on a rickety chair on an unsteady stage I observed a girl of not more than six or may be seven, with a sizeable child astride on her jutting right hip. She was far too lost in the unruly spectacle of noise and commotion to feel her burden, but I noticed she had her small bare feet firmly planted, feeling the dirt where she stood with her hardened small toes.

Visibly everyone was roused with emotions. There was much slogan mongering. Ill-timed political chanting constantly interrupted the speeches. Steadily the fragile little thing with the overbearing load trudged to the very edge of the stage for a better view. Before long when the noise died down, she was noticed and roughly shooed away by a ruffian. She withdrew without protest. She did not expect to be treated better.

But I could see a dark shadow cross her sallow complexion and the glitter die down in her wide black eyes. Suddenly she seemed tired. It was past midnight. She and her baby brother should have been in bed hours ago. She vanished in the crowd and in spite of incessant efforts I could not spot her again. I prayed her mother would not beat her for straying away from their wretched home.

There was another child of about the same age, a precocious boy of somewhat awkward bearing. He also managed to wend his way to the stage and stood peering at us with an ingratiating toothy smile. I felt an urge to present him with a pair of rose garlands, which I did. They lay in a heap on a low table. It was beyond belief what the boy did next.

He just took off like a missile up and down the narrow aisle thumping his feet in merriment and would have continued doing so if another lout had not brushed him aside, as if he was an unseemly insect. I still vividly remember the boy in a dirty grey shirt, thumping and prancing in jubilation. A mere gift of stray garlands had pleased him so much that he would not cease dancing like a monkey. An expensive toy often fails to excite a rich brat, but here was a lad of another kind, who got excited about so little. Lord forgive us for we know! Nor it seems we need to know.

It is heart wrenching how thrifty our citizens have become in asking for favours. In the past they asked for employment, streetlights, sewerage and other such very basic immunities necessary for their poor existence. Recently I was startled by a local speaker. They are good because they talk straight from the heart, without art. Addressing a political corner meeting he declared, “We don’t want to ask for anything because we know we will not get it. If you can please just get us a graveyard – a place to die and bury our dead.” This is verbatim what the old man said.

Adjacent to the constituency NA-97, where I was contesting elections, is the Lahore cantonment. I remember when I proceeded to London and later Cambridge in the early sixties for what they call ‘higher studies’, I was baffled at not finding one there. Frankly, I considered it quite odd for the English not to have even one cantonment, as I discovered during my travels across England, Scotland and Wales. In spite of my best efforts I could never manage a trip to Ireland.

Not being able to locate a cantonment in Great Britain remained an enigma for me. Like most readers having benefited from cantonments I took it for granted that cantonments were essential for all respectable cities. I believed in cantonments because I am a great believer in tradition and national heritage, even if aspects of it may threaten to lead to our undoing. But who cares? I say, ‘Take it or leave it’, because we are patriotic Pakistani citizens. Should we then not uphold in high esteem the cantonments?

Recently an old friend, who knew about my commitment to cantonments, sent me a write up on cantonments explaining what they were all about. According to him, “The meaning of a ‘cantonment’” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, 10th Edition, published in 2002 is, “a military camp, especially a permanent military station in British India.”

When the writer analysed the definition, I am told, in its historic perspective, it triggered his quest for knowing more. He learnt that cantonments were a legacy of colonial rule on the British Indian subcontinent. He was surprised that remnants of these not only continue to exist but are also growing larger. Apparently there is no concept of such an area in Great Britain itself or anywhere else in the world – no wonder I did not find one in London or Cambridge.

The story of cantonments in Pakistan my friend revealed is altogether a different one. Cantonments in Pakistan consist of palatial residences of serving and retired generals and senior military officials. Besides there are expensive clubs, golf courses, all-weather swimming pools, expensive shopping malls, and restaurants and well-maintained parks.

My friend also points out that in the past cantonments used to have cantonment boards. Fifty per cent odd seats were reserved for civilians living in the cantonments for which elections were held regularly. But since the army considered that they had a right to control the entire country, they also thought it best to appropriate sole control of the cantonments. In simple words to quote President Bush, they have introduced, ‘sustainable democracy’, as opposed to its ‘dysfunctional’ form that had existed before.

“Besides”, the narrative proceeds, “Cantonment Boards of every Cantonment in Pakistan own vast tracts of land. There is no parallel of such land holdings anywhere else in the world.” The third page ends with an interrogation, “Has it (the army) nothing better to do otherwise (than) making big money?”

The treatment meted out to the tenants of the Okara Military Farms is cited as an example of the army’s callous indifference. The poor tenants have been cultivating military lands in Okara for over a century. Whereas other tillers of lands owned by the state have been given ownership rights, the unfortunate tenants in Okara are not only denied these rights but are living in a state of constant fear of killings and beatings (and) arrests. They are under ‘total siege’ since ‘over a year’.

A sad state of affairs! No wonder “people at large frown upon all this and describe it as... privileged class in uniforms acquiring the undertone of ‘State within State’.”

One would need Goebbles to deny that the Cantonments far from serving any remote military function have become commercial enterprises. Logically if they have no military purpose should they not be returned to the city municipal corporations? And if they have a military dimension why build expensive housing colonies, which extend literally to nine miles short of the Indian Border? A novel strategy for defending Lahore.

But getting back to the ‘dysfunctional’ form of democracy where people can at least demand graveyards. Adjacent to Green Town, which is the brawniest place on earth, the Army owns endless acres of empty land. It has served no military purpose in the living memory of the people who live in the vicinity. Before the land is carved into expensive plots it would be kind if a few acres were earmarked for a spacious graveyard. There may be grave need for it in the bright days promised ahead. In case the defence authorities find parting with the required land too dear a proposition then could they perhaps consider investing in incinerators?

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is a painter, author and a political activist