Adnan Rehmat writes in The News
Taking a close look at a city is like reading the hopes, aspirations and pride of everyone who built it. Take a close look at Islamabad in all its pompous perplexity and clinical contradictions and not much popular ownership is apparent. Not that it prevents it from boasting a large number of peculiar characteristics even though these never show up in tourist brochures. It is, for instance, the ‘newest’ proper city in the country, the ‘newest’ city of Pakistan with a population of a million or more (the eighth in the country now) and even the ‘newest’ city in Asia that is also the capital of a country. Cynics could also emphasise Islamabad is the newest capital of Pakistan! (Karachi was the last, remember, anyone?) And, in this fact, emerges a side to the city that is debated little.
A golden jubilee is a good time for us to revisit the historic compulsions that made Islamabad not just the federal capital of Pakistan but a city that was built from scratch not too long ago. When Pakistan was created in 1947, its biggest city then, as now, was Karachi and was, after not a too-lengthy discussion, nominated and designated as the capital of the country. That’s where the founder and first leader of the country, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, set about his government.
In less than 15 years the founder was dead, the first prime minister assassinated, the country had its first experience of Martial Law and a military ruler and a second capital — Islamabad. Some years after the coup, the military led by General Ayub Khan (who went on to declare himself field marshal) faced stiff political resistance from the streets of Karachi, particularly language and religion riots, forcing the unelected regime to confront the protesters with force. The protracted political turmoil forced the military ruler to make a decision that would seal the fate of Pakistan: shift the capital away from the teeming noisy and nosy civilians who could be kept at bay far away.
Ayub first decided Abbottabad, his hometown, as the new capital but was persuaded it lay on an active seismic faultline and opted instead for the plains of Potohar ringed by the scenic Margalla Hills and close to the Raj-era garrison town of Rawalpindi that would provide available basic infrastructure to base the military. Starting in 1960, Ayub oversaw the rise of a brand new city at a relatively blistering pace. He had Greeks design it and Turks build it and announced a public award to nominate a name for the new capital.
Islamabad it was named and it came to be the second capital of Pakistan. Ironically, it also became, in barely a decade, the former capital of a future (while the civil war lasted) country — Bangladesh — and so serves as the vanguard of the relatively new as also the relatively old. Within a decade of being the new seat of government, it failed to serve its declared principal purpose of a symbol of the glorified federation by losing two-fifths of the territory and just over half the population it governed. The city may have been new but it was built in the fashion of ancient times when cities grew out of military posts established. It says something about the mala fide raison d’être of Islamabad’s genesis that for roughly the first half of its existence, the population of the federal capital was less than the size of the military! That the nascent federal capital and the military headquarters existed side by side was, therefore, by design. The military had clearly decided that they were better off ruling the country from a base that had no political ownership and was not rooted in a sub-nationalism that could trouble the generals. The next 40 years proved it: the coups of General Ziaul Haq and General Pervez Musharraf were so easy to conduct, it took barely two hours of work each time.
The formula was easy — seize the Prime Minister House, Pakistan Television and Pakistan Broadcasting Corporation in the smallish (and almost provincial) Islamabad and you had the country. Since the federal capital itself had local residents in a small minority — the bulk of the population, government servants, drawn from the far off federating units with no local ties and stakes — there would be no resistance. And there never has been. The adjacent city of Rawalpindi was a garrison city and could never create trouble — and never did. In this way, this city, tailor-made for friendly military takeovers and khaki rule, has served its intended purpose well. It is difficult to imagine a military power based in the densely populated and short-tempered Karachi or Lahore or Peshawar to both seize the city and hold it virtually indefinitely as Islamabad has proved. Indeed, Karachi, which forced the military out and Dhaka, which the military couldn’t hold once the residents turned against it, prove Islamabad’s purposeful exception.
Similarly despotic dispensations and regimes have done an Islamabad elsewhere in the world. Finding holding angrily confident Karachi-like cities Rio de Janeiro in Brazil, Almaty in Kazakhstan and Lagos in Nigeria difficult, tinpot dictators or military-backed elites in these countries have created new administrative capitals to both entrench themselves and keep their citizens at bay. Brazil has Brasilia, Kazakhstan has Astana and Nigeria has Abuja as their versions of Islamabad — devoid of locally-rooted residents, orderly, glittering, resource-stacked cities that serve as functional utopias and safely entrenched power centres. Little wonder then that Islamabad offers all the telltale signs of a city designed for an ulterior purpose that seems like a support resource for the elites. Islamabad is the only ‘civilian’ territory in Pakistan without self-rule (the only other regions in the country without elected representation are the cantonments). There is no local government in Islamabad. No democracy by law or practice in the capital of a democratic country! No elected local assembly or council in a city that houses the elected bicameral parliament in the country. The parliament may rule the country but the city is ruled by unelected municipal bureaucrats!
This is a city where your life is lived out along residential grids that reveal your financial status. Even in death, your place of burial in graveyards determines your social status. Hospitals, eateries, parks, schools and offices all are straight giveaways to the ranks and grades that this city brands its citizens by and makes them wear it on their sleeves. Sure, there are exceptions but all end up only proving the rule. This is a city where there are more wheels than there are legs — over half a million cars in a city of 1.2 million people. The high literacy rate of the city fails to match the low ratio of the regions of the country it rules. Few in Karachi build a second house in Peshawar and fewer still in Lahore do so in Quetta but nearly everyone who is anyone in the country builds one house in Islamabad. And yet the housing shortage in the city is over 350,000 and no new residential sector has been opened, allotted and built in 15 years. All of this is by design. A city where the cheapest 125 square yards (5 marla) plot of land in open sectors is for Rs 4 million is a city of the bourgeois. This city is designed to be straight and ordered, neat and clipped. But ironically, the city has come to represent an ideal that espoused endless opportunities for a country created not too long before it but has only managed to accumulate the best of the worst bits while the country it governs has the worst of the best. There’s something missing in this city that everyone in the country is looking for but few know what.