The way it was: Art and national security

Mian Ijaz Ul Hassan

In all fairness to our police and secret services, Khalid is an odd-looking character, who is really hard to categorise. He is far too sophisticated to be considered a rogue and far too unkempt to be regarded a gentleman

Pakistan, like a few other countries, has an absurdly high, and rather peculiar, sense of national security. I was in Karachi for an extended seminar on various aspects of education. One of the sessions on information technology or something sounding equally elegant was held at the premises of SUPARCO. In one of the presentations the expert who worked for SUPARCO projected in sequence a number of satellite pictures — apparently we have a satellite of our own up there. In stages we moved from pictures of planet earth to the subcontinent to Kathiawar, the Rann of Katch, the Indus delta, Karachi and the Gwadar coast. From there we wandered off to see what was happening in the Gaddafi Stadium at Lahore. The Satellite camera inquisitively zoomed in closer and I could now see not only the main Gulberg Market but also actually the road turning into my house. We were told that facilities were available with our security forces to close in even further.

This left me rather perplexed. If so much can be seen so clearly from up there, then how come our concept of security in many respects is still so crude. The satellite is a very curious bird. I wonder if you remember that at one time a satellite photograph went around showing a lady sunbathing in the nude on rooftop of a building in Moscow. But as I said, what is amazing is not what can be done from the sky but what is done by the security personnel on the ground.

I remember an occasion when Colin David a well-known artist, peddled off to paint a landscape. He stood quietly under the shade of the Ravi Bridge painting a prospect which he particularly liked. His creative spell was broken by a rude policeman who demanded to know why he was making pictures of the bridge, a prohibited activity. Colin politely informed him that he was not painting the bridge; in fact, he had his back to it. The dutiful and vigilant policeman was not impressed. He narrowed his eyes to study Colin carefully and countered, ‘That may be so but you are nevertheless standing under the bridge’. Colin was not handcuffed because the keeper of our law was without transport and required Colin to carry his imperial corpulence, a mile away, to the Ravi Road thana, where proper and investigation could be conducted. Sensitive information could be concealed anywhere.

The incident took place in the early sixties. On another occasion during the aftermath of 1965, Colin was once again lifted on suspicion of being an Indian spy. This time he was found sketching at Laxmi Chawk. Outdoor sketching and drawing can be a dangerous pastime, which is why perhaps Colin abandoned landscape painting.

I know of another artist Shahid Jalal who owns a Pajero, which he must show off. He paints pebbles cushions and curtains rather well but insists on driving out to the wild countryside where no gentleman can venture without arousing visible curiosity and even suspicion for the local fauna. The last time he went out painting outdoors he didn’t return for a week. Apparently he had inadvertently crossed into a highly sensitive security zone, whatever it is called. There was nothing in evidence for miles around. A few mounds and hillocks of clay, dwarf acacias and shrub. There were no signs that said ‘keep off’. Understandably there were no signs because it was highly secret, ‘Prohibited Area’. Shahid Jalal should have known this, but he did not know nor cared. Naturally as soon as he had set up his metallic easel, closed his left eye and raised his right hand wielding an inverted brush to measure the distance, he was caught in flagrante delicto. Some of these metal easels, believe me, can look like grenade launchers. The easel was pulled apart and the Pajero was probed with drills, all over. But when to the dismay and displeasure of the investigators, nothing was found, Shahid was taken into custody, blindfolded and driven somewhere-a good one-hour distance at good speed.

Shahid was lucky enough to know someone in a high place that was able to get him out with the influence of somebody he knew in an even higher place.
Khalid Iqbal is a great teacher and artist and recipient of the President’s Award for Pride of Performance, a former Principal of NCA and what not. He was caught near the PCSIR laboratories adjacent to the FC College near the Ichhra Bridge. He was there quietly rendering a simbal tree, with its large red blossoms, when he was suspected of being a foreign agent. In all fairness to our police and secret services, Khalid is an odd-looking character, who is really hard to categorise. He is far too sophisticated to be considered a rogue and far too unkempt to be regarded a gentleman. He is rather gentle to be considered a man of substance and too polite to be having a connection with the powerful. A man who escapes social definition cannot be trusted, especially when he had nothing better to do than disturb the peace of birds and bees, labouring over dull scenarios which take you nowhere. Even a tonga takes you actual places. Imagine carrying small brushes! Even the most lowly carry more threatening instruments to earn others’ respect.

Often even when Khalid is painting in an unfamiliar surrounding, people get him water to drink and suggest to him to step into the shade on a hot day. They may inwardly laugh at his idiosyncratic demeanour but instinctively know that he is someone special. I am flabbergasted that anyone can even with wildest imagination suspect him as threat to our national security. All I can say is that in order to be respected our artists should go out with brushed hair and dressed in a tie and jacket or a well starched shalwar-kamees — holding the brushes in one hand and wielding a mobile in the other.

There must be a purpose in this seemingly mad conduct of the security agencies. What indeed is the Purpose? I believe it is to harass people and convince them that the country is under an impending danger of being attacked and subverted by its enemies. That there are deadly plots and conspiracies being hatched against the nation which require immediate and foremost attention. This enables the state establishment to brand and blacken the opposition and label individual politicians, even political parties, as enemy agents. This also provides justification for the military establishment to perpetuate itself and consume even the little money for people’s welfare that could help make the nation healthy, literate and strong. History tells us that weak and divided nations cannot be defended and that healthy and united nations cannot be conquered.
A few weeks back a friend of mine came to visit Pakistan with his 13-year-old son, Martin Nazeer. This was Martin’s first journey to Pakistan and his mother had told Martin to have himself photographed against as many monuments and places of historical significance as possible. In spite of intense heat and humidity in which we have been burning and suffocating, Martin tried to see as much as he could of his fatherland. Things went quite smoothly till he arrived at the Lahore Fort. Who would not like to have a photograph taken in the Shish Mahal? It is a well-known Mughal Palace building. In the courtyard of the Palace, as we all know, is the famous marble pavilion called the Naulakha Pavilion, with its drooping chajjas and the exquisite lattice windows, which look into the Badshahi Mosque and the river Ravi — now screened off by the city.

A view of the Naulakha Pavilion has been in mass circulation by virtue of its being on our one-rupee currency note for decades. It is one of the favourite postage cards which tourists like to purchase and send back to their friends and relatives. Martin naturally liked to have his photograph taken while he stood against this pavilion. Just when his proud father Nazeer was about to click the camera, a skinny local guard who had been suspiciously eyeing them from behind a column, with delicate pietra durra inlay, marched in and roared, ‘Look here, taking photographs is not allowed in here.’ When asked,’ why not?’ The guard replied, ‘It is a matter of national security’. Nazeer insisted, ‘But these are only historical buildings. What is there to hide?’ The guard pulled himself to his maximum height, without the cap because that had fallen off in the process, and shouted, ‘These are the orders.’ Obviously, there is need for national security, but at whose cost?

Prof Ijaz-ul-Hassan is Pakistan’s leading painter. He is a teacher, art critic and political activist. He was awarded the “President’s Pride of Performance” in 1992. He is currently the president of the PPP Punjab’s Policy Planning Committee and Chairman of the party’s Manifesto Committee